COVID-19 and the avoidable deaths of the elderly
By Deborah Stilt — COVID-19 has rocked our nation to its core. So far, more than 103,000 U.S. deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus. Over 43,000 of those deaths have been in long-term care facilities. Have we done all we can to protect our vulnerable elderly population? Or have we, as a society, deemed their lives less valuable and allowed our leaders to facilitate their deaths?
In the United States, approximately 0.06% of the population resides in long-term care (LTC) facilities. However, as of May 22nd, an astounding 42% of all COVID-19 deaths in the country have taken place in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. And this could be an undercount. States like New York exclude from their nursing home death tallies those who die in a hospital, even if they were originally infected in an assisted living facility. Outside of New York, more than half of those who have died were residents in LTC facilities.
Given the fact the elderly population and those with pre-existing conditions are more susceptible to COVID-19, one might assume this statistic is simply a sad, yet unavoidable outcome of the coronavirus pandemic. However, closer analyses show wide variation between levels of infection and death from state-to-state, as shown in the map below, and a strong correlation to policies requiring LTC facilities to accept COVID-19 patients into their care.
New York’s plight
On March 25th, New York became the first state to issue a ruling prohibiting nursing homes from denying admission or re-admission to residents because they were infected with COVID-19 (that ruling has reportedly been scrubbed from the state’s health website). The order also banned the facilities from testing patients for the disease before they were admitted and allowed workers who tested positive for coronavirus, but were asymptomatic, to continue working – effectively allowing the virus to spread unmitigated. When met with pushback, Governor Anthony Cuomo doubled down saying:
“They don’t have a right to object. That is the rule and that is the regulation, and they have to comply with that.”
The American Health Care Association, which represents LTC facilities, stated, “The bottom line is that nursing homes are not a priority in the public health system and this policy reflects that.”
Brendan Williams, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Health Care Association, said he believed the order was “tantamount to genocide.”
On May 10th, Governor Cuomo released new guidance that prohibited hospitals from sending people who tested positive for COVID-19 back to nursing homes. His administration said the new guidance added to – but did not replace – the original order. However, the damage had already been done. The latest state numbers indicate that 36 nursing homes in New York have seen at least 10% of their residents succumb to the virus. This includes two nursing homes where more than 20% of the residents have reportedly died of COVID-19. A total of more than 5,800 people have died in New York nursing homes since March 1st – arguably a direct result of these misguided policies.
COVID in California
The governors of New Jersey, Michigan, and California made similar mandates requiring nursing homes to accept patients with active COVID-19 infections who were being discharged from hospitals. The California Department of Public Health mandate reads:
“SNFs (skilled nursing facilities) shall not refuse to admit or readmit a resident based on their status as a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case.”
In an interview with the LA Times, Patricia McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, stated:
“Sacrificing the lives of beloved nursing home residents is beyond unconscionable. California’s directive is nothing less than a death sentence for countless residents.”
A growing scandal in Minnesota
Minnesota has the highest percentage of COVID-19 deaths of LTC residents in the nation. In spite of this fact, Minnesota officials continue to transfer infected patients into these facilities, and almost no local media are calling them out. On May 7th, almost 2 months after Minnesota Governor Tim Walz issued his executive order in response to COVID-19, Walz outlined a new five-point plan to protect long-term care residents from COVID-19. However, since the announcement, Minnesota’s percentage of deaths in LTC facilities has increased by 2% and now is nearing 82%.
Mitch Berg, a moderator from the Facebook group Essential Minnesota, made the following statement:
“According to the data available, over 81% of Minnesota’s COVID deaths are long-term care (LTC) residents. That is, in fact, the highest share of a state’s death toll in the country. To date, 2.8% of Minnesota’s entire long term care population have died of Covid19 – the 14th worst per capita death toll in the country. That is some horrific carnage indeed – but it’s more sobering to note that, in the past two months, almost 10% of the entire long-term care population in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey have died. That total is considerably higher than in Mississippi (1.9%) and Florida (1.5%), both of which locked down nursing homes right away, and barred readmitting COVID-positive patients to LTC facilities early in the crisis.
And how about MN’s neighboring states? Iowa has lost 1% of its LTC population. North Dakota and South Dakota have lost 0.1% – a tenth of a percent each. Minnesota’s LTC death toll is 28 times that of our neighbors to the west, and that’s per capita, not absolute numbers.”
Berg goes on to say that as many as 30% of LTC residents die in a typical year. “But even so, death rates like those in the hardest hit states are a huge surge in mortality among our most vulnerable citizens.”
The following graphic from COVID Clarity on Twitter illustrates the shocking difference between deaths in Minnesota’s LTC facilities and deaths in the general population there.
COVID-19 patients continue to be transferred into LTC facilities under the guise of ensuring Minnesota keeps ICU beds open, but this practice begs the question: Why aren’t infected patients being placed into COVID-only facilities, rather than exposing an already vulnerable population to the deadly virus?
Unfortunately, it appears Governor Walz is not even considering this line of questioning. Instead, he recently signed off on a $6.9 million dollar purchase of a 75,000 square foot refrigerated warehouse to house the bodies of the dead.
What about the facilities themselves?
LTC facilities are often ill-equipped to handle COVID-19 patients. Many elderly residents are simply unable to comply with basic infection control measures, like hand-washing or mask-wearing, and suffer from underlying health conditions that make them more likely to succumb to the virus. Insufficient coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment shortages further fuel the outbreak in nursing homes. Additionally, nursing home administrators argue that, while state and federal officials have encouraged or mandated taking on COVID-19 patients, they have failed to provide adequate resources and guidance to protect other residents and staff from transmission.
Is this merely an oversight? Or is it perhaps indicative of a deeper problem in terms of how we value people who are no longer “useful” to society?
COVID-19 and personhood
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen an increase in discriminatory attitudes toward the elderly on social media and in the press. Comments such as, “They’re on their way out anyway” or the blatantly ageist term “Boomer Remover” illustrate the underlying supposition that older human beings, or those that are chronically ill, are somehow less deserving of protection, healthcare, and even life itself. Our utilitarian culture envisions our elders as people who are no longer equal partners in matters that make for a viable and thriving society.
Journalist Jeremy Warner put it bluntly:
“Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.”
The concept of “culling” elderly human beings is offensive in the extreme. It disregards their personhood and forgets that they, too, are image bearers of Almighty God.
But it’s also a fallacy to assume that older people are “on their way out.” Most elderly people are not dying. Not only are the “old” getting older, but the risk of death in the next year for a 70-year-old man is just 2 percent. Likewise, an 80-year-old woman has only a 4 percent likelihood of dying in the coming year. Often, our elders have many good years ahead of them – time in which those of us who are younger could learn from their depth of experience.
We must remember that COVID-19 is not less of a threat if it is confined to a nursing home. It is actually more of a threat. The lives of the elderly are ours to protect and defend – not erase.
Deborah Stilt is the social media coordinator for the Personhood Alliance and has been active in pro-life media for several years. But most importantly, she’s a California mom who is fighting against the lies of the culture and for the protection of every human being without exception.