HARRISBURG – A pair of Senate committees took a closer look at some of the most serious challenges facing nursing homes and personal care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic at a joint public hearing today.
The Senate Aging and Youth Committee and the Senate Health and Human Services Committee questioned administration officials about COVID-19 and heard from operators of nursing homes and personal care homes desperate for state help in dealing with the public health emergency.
As of Wednesday, 2,108 of Pennsylvania’s 3,106 COVID-19 deaths have been residents of nursing homes and personal care homes. Pennsylvania has 700 nursing homes with approximately 80,000 residents, and more than 1,200 licensed personal care homes serving approximately 46,500 residents.
“With such a high death toll occurring in these facilities, we need to make sure everything possible is being done for our most vulnerable population and provide some peace of mind for family members who have loved ones in long-term care homes,” said Senate Aging and Youth Committee chair Senator Judy Ward (R-30). “Our nursing homes and other long-term living facilities are a hotspot for this virus. Our most vulnerable population should’ve been the biggest focus of protection from the beginning of this outbreak, but they were not.”
Pennsylvania Health Care Association President and CEO Zach Shamberg spoke about the challenges of dealing with COVID-19 in a nursing home setting.
“Nearly 500 facilities statewide have reported at least one case of COVID-19. And nearly 70 percent of all COVID-related deaths in Pennsylvania have occurred in long-term care,” Shamberg said. “With numbers like that, you’d think any state response effort would not just include nursing homes and long-term care facilities—it would prioritize them. Yet here we are today. The critical initiatives we’re fighting for on May 7th are very much the same needs we’ve advocated for since this epidemic began in mid-March.”
Some of the financial challenges facing nursing homes were highlighted by Lisa McCracken, who serves as Director of Senior Living Research and Development for Ziegler, an investment firm that specializes in financial services for healthcare.
“It is important to note that the nursing home sector, in general, was not on the same level of solid footing as others coming into the COVID-19 outbreak,” McCracken said. “One of the respected national accounting firms in the sector, CliftonLarsonAllen, estimates that 70 percent of nursing homes in the country will be in a negative cash position by mid-May. While some providers have been able to access PPP loans and additional Medicare lump-sum payments through the CARES Act to offset some expenses and revenue losses, this is not enough to hold up a struggling sector.”
The senators noted that legislation is currently working its way through the General Assembly to distribute an additional $200 million to nursing homes from Pennsylvania’s share of money from the federal CARES Act.
Testifiers all agreed about the need to make more Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) available to nursing homes to protect both patients and staff.
“The PPE needed to keep caregivers safe is in short supply, difficult to find, and the prices are skyrocketing,” said LeadingAge PA President and CEO Adam Marles. “Early on in the crisis, hospitals rather than nursing homes and personal care homes received the bulk of attention and the scarce PPE equipment. We were grateful to learn last week that nursing facilities, personal care homes and assisted living residences will now receive priority from the Department of Health for PPE, but we will need all the help we can get to continue to address the severe supply shortages.”
Other participants noted the importance of adequate testing and spoke about the challenges of attracting and retaining staff, keeping staff healthy and identifying patients and staff who have been exposed to the virus.
“As hindsight is 20/20, we have found that the screening of staff is not helpful as our positive staff members did not present with a fever or symptoms when at work,” said Fellowship Community President and CEO Mary Kay McMahon. “It is mind boggling that we are not prioritized for testing at this point, that obtaining test swabs is a challenge and we must use every available resource to try to get them.”
Claire Rodriguez, a License Practical Nurse at Homestead Village Enhanced Senior Living in Lancaster, spoke about the physical and emotional toll of caring for patients who are fighting the virus. Rodriguez is one of the more than 1,300 healthcare providers who tested has tested positive for COVID-19 during the pandemic.
“The road to caring my residents, who are my friends, who are COVID positive, has been rocky. Many patients have lived at the community for years, so I really know them and to see them decline is heartbreaking for me,” Rodriguez said. “Many days I sit with patients who are critically ill and just encourage them to keep fighting, that they can beat this.”
Reporting has also been a challenge for many nursing homes. The Senate passed a bill recently that would improve reporting of cases of COVID-19 in nursing homes and ensure information is provided to first responders so additional precautions can be taken to avoid further spread of the virus by asymptomatic carriers.
“It is clear after today’s testimony that there has been inadequate supplies of PPEs and testing kits from the state. The administration needs to focus on infection control and provide the resources needed to care for these at-risk individuals,” said Ward.
Hearing video and testimony will be posted here.
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