For many, it’s no surprise to learn that nursing home residents have suffered disproportionately compared to the general population during the COVID-19 pandemic. But just how deadly did circumstances get in our nation’s nursing homes?
A new report released by the Office of the Inspector General, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), shows that nursing home deaths increased by at least 32% during the pandemic.
Further, at least 184,000 nursing home residents and staff of long-term care facilities have died since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — a number that continues to grow each day. The Kaiser Family Foundation notes that the large death toll, which is quickly approaching 200,000, accounts for roughly a third of all American fatalities attributed to COVID-19.
Things have certainly improved over the last several months since the vaccine rollout picked up in early March, and the United States has seen a major decline in COVID-19 deaths overall.
Nevertheless, it remains vital to acknowledge the toll the pandemic has had on nursing homes and the country’s most vulnerable citizens, so that better safeguards are put into place to protect such citizens against any future health crises that may come.
The Inspector General’s Report on Nursing Home Deaths
As the OIG report outlines, nursing home residents present a unique challenge when it comes to combating the overall impact of COVID-19.
Roughly half of nursing home residents are 85-years-old or older, according to the Health in Aging Foundation. In addition, most nursing home residents have at least one underlying condition, making the overall population of nursing home residents particularly vulnerable to a disease like COVID-19, which is known to prey on the elderly and people living with underlying conditions.
To draw its conclusions, the OIG’s report gathered and analyzed information from Medicare beneficiaries’ billing data. The report’s conclusions will be used to assess the overall impact that COVID-19 had on the American nursing home population.
Some of the biggest takeaways from the report include:
- 40% of all Medicare beneficiaries in nursing homes were diagnosed with COVID-19
- 169,291 more nursing home residents died in 2020 compared to 2019
- Roughly 1,000 more Medicare beneficiaries died each day in April 2020 than in April 2019 (pre-pandemic)
In addition, a notable racial discrepancy was found between white and non-white Medicare beneficiaries who were diagnosed with COVID-19:
|Race||% of Nursing Home Residents Diagnosed with COVID-19||% of Nursing Home Residents That Died From COVID-19|
Though Asian-American residents saw a 10% increase in deaths from 2019 to 2020 (17% to 27%) — the highest increase among any racial category — other races saw increased death rates as well. White Americans saw a 6% increase from 2019 to 2020 (18% to 24%), and both Black Americans and Hispanic Americans saw an 8% increase (15% to 23%).
Perhaps the biggest discrepancy, however, was seen among low-income nursing home residents. Among these residents, 56% were diagnosed with COVID-19 and nearly half died from the disease.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Harvard health policy professor David Grabowski remarked on the data, “We knew this was going to be bad, but I don’t think even those of us who work in this area thought it was going to be this bad. These were not individuals who were going to die anyway,” Grabowski continued. “We’re talking about a really big number of excess deaths.”
Building a Better Future for Nursing Home Residents
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly proven to be one of the most difficult challenges the United States (and the globe) has faced since the start of the new millennium. Just as with any crisis, government agencies and businesses must learn how to weather the storm and how and where to make improvements moving forward. This is why comprehensive and reliable data drawn from the nation’s most vulnerable citizens is vital to gather, quantify, and understand.
As the OIG states:
“It is important that we understand the extent of the outbreaks in nursing homes, including increases in deaths, to not only acknowledge the pandemic’s toll, but to improve efforts to mitigate the damage of the continuing pandemic, and better prepare for future public health emergencies.”
In constructing such plans for the future, data can point out what went wrong and where things can be fixed or improved. For far too long, elders living in nursing homes across the country have suffered due to inadequate care and various forms of nursing home abuse.
The OIG report is simply the latest example of that suffering.
Published on June 22, HHS’s recent report is the first of a three-part series. The two remaining reports will be released in the coming months. They will focus on both the actions that various nursing homes across the country took and the strategies they put into place to combat the pandemic. Such information will prove invaluable if conditions in nursing homes are to improve.