Mississippi’s long term care facilities have been the epicenter of the state’s coronavirus pandemic says Priya Chidambaram, policy analyst with the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“It’s been abundantly clear since data has been coming out that long term care facilities, which includes nursing homes, have been the epicenter of this pandemic.” Chidambaram continues “Just last week, we identified 19 states, including Mississippi, where half or more of deaths have been in long term care facilities.”
Chidambaram has been tracking public health data across the nation and says concerns about diseases spreading in nursing homes have existed for years.
“When you look at the different factors that a pandemic puts into place. You know, extra stress on the healthcare system overall, you’ve got vulnerable residents who are grouped together in congregate settings very close together, staffing capacity shortages, things like that. It really does create sort of this perfect storm for long term care facilities to be hit in this incredibly hard way that they have been.”
Governor Tate Reeves announced Monday that all residents will be tested if a positive case appears in a long term care facility. He says he hopes to expand the initiative even further -- by testing in every facility whether there is an outbreak or not. “Now that’s an ambitious goal. We’re not going to be able to do it tomorrow,"says Reeves. "But that is going to be our change in posture, or really just an additional focus on those facilities as we work to slow the spread of this virus in those most high-risk areas.”
Tony Hamrick, President of the Mississippi Healthcare Association and Nursing Home Administrator in Hattiesburg, says long term care facilities across the state are taking extra precautions. He says his nursing home had already limited visitation before going into a complete lockdown.
“Complete lockdown meaning no visitation, no families, no vendors. The only way vendors get in, they have to be sanctioned in." says Hamrick. "Temperature checks, background checks. They are essential so we have to have them. Other than our employees and our vendors and essential medical personnel, we don’t allow anyone else in.”
The Mississippi Department of Health is not releasing the names of long term care facilities with outbreaks. State Health Officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, says this is standard procedure for all diseases. He says “We’ve had outbreaks in long term care for years and to protect the identities and privacy of the residents and also to prevent stigmatization of different facilities, it’s always been our stance not to release long term care stuffs. We have strong concerns that it’s the wrong thing to do to release the name of the nursing homes.”
While visitation has been closed off from families, communication and transparency between a facility, residents and loved ones is important, according to AARP Mississippi Director Kimberly Campbell. She says she’s created a list of questions that everyone needs to ask the nursing homes housing their loved ones.
- Has anyone in the nursing home tested positive for COVID-19?
- What is the nursing home doing to prevent infections?
- Do they have enough of the PPEs that they need to stay safe and keep their patients safe as well?
- Is the nursing home currently at full staffing levels for nurses, aides and other workers?
Campbell says informed voters can also help make important policy decisions that will help fund and maintain safety in nursing homes. She says “the discussion needs to be ‘What can we ask for Congress to really make sure that the nursing homes are really a part of any other, coming down the pipe COVID-19 relief packages. To really make sure they’re at the front line just like our healthcare workers to getting those safety precautions and protective equipment in place.”
While nationwide shortages of PPE are a concern, MSHCA President Tony Hamrick says facilities in his organization have found ways to obtain the essential equipment. Hammrick says these sources can include FEMA, local citizens, the National Guard, Parent Companies, and the Department of Health. He says "any time that anybody screams ‘We’re short of something,’ needs have been met. Someone’s come to the rescue and we’ve found the equipment that needed to be used.”
While Mississippi continues to reopen its economy and allow residents to return to their normal lives, Hamrick says it could take much longer for nursing homes and long term care facilities to reopen their doors. “I would suggest that nursing homes would probably be one of the last places to open because we have such a vulnerable population," says Hamrick. "I would propose that I would still keep my nursing home locked down until I as a provider felt comfortable that the positive cases and the risk of infection were much lower than it is now.”
Mississippi remains under a safer at home order until May 25th, and some counties have received tighter restrictions based on coronavirus infection rates in those areas. Because of variable testing numbers, it is unknown when long term care facilities will reopen to public visitation.
The Mississippi Department of Health has reported that at least 1,345 cases of the virus have been confirmed in long-term care facilities, with at least 224 virus-related deaths in those facilities.