The older, sicker residents in Indiana nursing homes make the environments particularly susceptible to the coronavirus. But there are other reasons why the disease has been so lethal there.
Gov. Eric Holcomb announced on Wednesday that he would send members of the Indiana National Guard into nursing homes to help an “exhausted” staff care for residents.
The announcement comes as long-term care facilities are experiencing a surge of cases and deaths. To date, 2,205 residents of nursing homes or assisted living facilities in Indiana have died of COVID-19, about 58% of coronavirus deaths statewide.
Beginning on Nov. 1, the National Guard will help with tasks such as staff screenings, data entry and testing to allow long-term care staff more time to directly care for residents. Facilities currently experiencing outbreaks will be the first to receive the aid.
Staff, residents and families are “simply, like so many, overwhelmed by the scale and pace that this virus can take on,” Holcomb said during the state’s weekly coronavirus press conference. “There is fatigue there. You’re seeing that; we’re hearing that when you’re on the ground.”
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But that fatigue should not necessarily come as a surprise. The pandemic exacerbated what was already a chronic problem revealed in an IndyStar investigation, published back in March.
Even before the pandemic, Indiana’s nursing home facilities were significantly understaffed, on average ranking 48th in the nation according to an analysis of federal data by IndyStar. Poor staffing at the state’s homes is one of the reasons AARP rates Indiana’s elder care system dead last in the country. The IndyStar investigation found several instances where poor staffing was cited as contributing to injury or death at Indiana facilities.
The use of the National Guard is one of several steps the state announced to prevent the spread of the disease in long-term care facilities and to maintain hospital capacity, one of the state’s four guiding principles for reopening. The state has twice as many Hoosiers hospitalized with COVID-19 today compared to late June and early July, said Dr. Lindsay Weaver, chief medical officer of the state health department.
The state will also connect facilities with clinical workers through its health care reserve program, which pairs retired or out-of-work health care workers with facilities in need. Weaver said the state had received 11 requests for help from the program from long-term care facilities just this week.
Additional workers will work with the Indiana State Department of Health to visit each long-term care facility at least three times a week, possibly more, to provide additional infection control training, Weaver said.
In addition to staffing help, the state will send 2 million N95 masks to long-term care facilities, the largest distribution of personal protective equipment in Indiana to date.
The efforts come as ISDH closes in on its goal to perform infection control surveys at every facility in the month of October, which Weaver expects to wrap up this week.
Weaver identified staffing as the most common theme where long-term care facilities could use additional support.
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The pandemic creates a burden on staffing nursing homes, whose staff must stay out of work to quarantine after exposure or who must take extra time to care for COVID-19 patients.
“I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge our healthcare workforce and acknowledge the fact that they are exhausted. They have been running a marathon at a sprint pace for eight months. And the human body simply isn’t designed to sustain such a pace,” Weaver said. “These measures are intended to not only protect residents of these facilities, but will provide some relief to the staff who have been working around the clock to help care for them.”
Weaver also announced a new program that would allow hospital patients to be discharged straight to home care rather than to nursing homes. The program, which was approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, will be piloted in Marion, Hamilton, St. Joseph, Floyd and the surrounding counties.
“We want to ensure that everyone who qualifies for home services can get them quickly,” Weaver said.
Emily Hopkins is a data reporter for IndyStar’s investigative team. Reach them at 317-444-6409 or [email protected]
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