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EDITORIAL: Las Vegas nursing home devastated by virus

The coronavirus pandemic is increasingly a horror story featuring the vulnerable elderly. The tragedy playing out at a Las Vegas nursing home highlights the toll this pandemic has taken on the nation’s senior population and the importance of reforms necessary to protect those living in such facilities.

On Wednesday, The Heights of Summerlin nursing home reported a stunning 16 new resident deaths from the coronavirus. The deaths did not all occur on the same day but took place over a period of days, primarily at local hospitals. The 190-bed assisted living center had previously reported eight resident deaths from the respiratory ailment.

All told, the nursing home through Friday had experienced 133 cases of COVID-19 — 76 residents and 57 workers had come down with the disease. “Despite all the preventive steps nursing homes are taking,” facility administrator Andrew Reese said, “the virus is still making its way into nursing homes across the nation.”

Indeed, emerging statistics show that the vast majority of virus deaths have occurred in those older than 70 and that, in many states, nursing homes have been particularly susceptible to deadly outbreaks. The New York Times reported this month that one-third of the nation’s coronavirus fatalities have been in senior living residences. Hundreds of senior facilities across the country have been hit with more than 100 virus cases. In 14 states, the paper found, residents and staff of such facilities accounted for more than half of the coronavirus deaths.

Recall that the first coronavirus outbreak in the United States — in late February — involved a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. Forty people eventually died, and a federal investigation found that “employees were untrained in infection control and the use of personal protective equipment,” Betsy McCaughey, chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, noted in The Wall Street Journal last week. “Hand sanitizer, masks and gowns were in short supply.”

Despite this deadly harbinger, many public health officials were instead focused on protecting hospitals from succumbing to a massive influx of virus patients. Nursing homes and other senior residences were an afterthought. It wasn’t until April 2, Politico reports, that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended segregating nursing home coronavirus patients and designating specific staff to work with them.

Notably, lockdowns have done little to protect those who reside in senior facilities. Sheltering in place is already a way of life for nursing home residents.

Nevada has largely avoided significant outbreaks in senior living communities, but the exception at The Heights of Summerlin indicates that regulators and nursing home operators still have work to do. Public health advocates have repeatedly warned of a potential second wave of the virus. Whether or not that occurs, the best way to save lives as the pandemic carries on “would be to improve infection control in nursing homes” and to ensure that facilities have ample personal protection equipment on hand, Ms. McCaughey writes.

Richard Whitley, director of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said the state has a team of epidemiologists and health care inspectors working to ensure that nursing home workers don’t violate protocols. “They’re going out proactively when they see things in one facility,” he said, “to try to help others prevent … those same breaches of infection control.”

But while such inspections are no doubt useful, the state should also put into place a comprehensive program for ensuring that those who work in senior facilities are properly trained to use protective equipment and to adhere to sanitation standards intended to combat the spread of disease. It might also help for state regulators to craft guidelines for equipment stockpiles, for separating residents in such facilities who have contracted coronavirus from those who have not and even for designating certain nursing home facilities to handle such patients.

Nevada’s coronavirus markers continue to improve, and the governor appears poised to further ease business closings this week. But the elderly remain uniquely vulnerable to infection. The devastation at The Heights of Summerlin must serve as a somber reminder of the lifesaving importance of eternal vigilance at the state’s nursing homes and senior housing facilities.

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