RESIDENTS AND staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities account for roughly half of 1 percent of the U.S. population, and more than a third of the covid-19 deaths. That justifies extreme measures by federal officials and states, but so far both have balked.

On a call Monday with governors, Vice President Pence strongly recommended testing at nursing homes nationwide, and Deborah Birx, the White House pandemic task force coordinator, said, “We really believe that all 1 million nursing home residents need to be tested within next two weeks as well as the staff,” according to a recording of the call obtained by the Associated Press. Yet, federal officials and most governors have stopped short of mandating such tests.

An exception is New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), who has ordered twice-weekly testing for nursing home staff in his state — and warned that facilities that fail to comply risk losing their operating licenses. Other governors should follow suit.

The pandemic’s disproportionate toll in nursing homes is a story of staggering numbers and suffering that takes place out of the public eye. Infections have been confirmed in half the nation’s 15,500 facilities. In about 15 states, more than half of all those who have succumbed to the coronavirus lived or (less commonly) worked in nursing homes. And that’s just what’s known from the incomplete data provided by the states, some of which do not yet specify where deaths have occurred.

The poor standard of care and chronic understaffing at many elder-care facilities was a preexisting condition that enabled the pathogen to tear through them. While most nursing homes barred their doors to families, vendors and other outsiders from the start of the pandemic, the virus spread nonetheless, perhaps owing to the facilities’ staff, who often had no access to testing or masks and other basic safety equipment. While officials prioritized hospital workers and first responders for equipment and testing, employees at long-term care facilities were often overlooked.

In addition to ordering testing at every nursing home in New York, Mr. Cuomo reversed an earlier edict — with good reason — by requiring that hospitals test patients for the coronavirus before they are discharged to nursing homes. He acknowledged his actions might be criticized as harsh. “No,” he said. “Harsh is having a nursing home resident who doesn’t get the appropriate care. That’s what’s harsh.”

In states where tests are in short supply, they should be prioritized for nursing homes and other elder-care facilities. That is amply justified by the disproportionate impact among an exceptionally susceptible population of residents.

Read more: