The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The staggering coronavirus toll at nursing homes justifies extreme measures

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a briefing at New York Medical College in Valhalla on May 7. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

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.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

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.”

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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:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Deciding when and how to reopen

The Post’s View: Nursing homes are flying blind during a pandemic. They deserve better.

Steven L. Berk and Abraham Verghese: Nursing homes are our cruise ships

Michael L. Barnett and David C. Grabowski: Covid-19 is ravaging nursing homes. We’re getting what we paid for.

Letters to the Editor: We need testing of nursing home workers — and a lot more

Andrew Cuomo: What Washington must do to protect workers

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

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