Frank Fontana and his daughter, Liz Marciano, visit with their wife and mother, Sharon Fontana, at Kimberly Hall North in Windsor to surprise her for the Fontana’s 60th wedding anniversary. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

Nursing home residents in Connecticut and throughout the country have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 56,000 residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities —including nearly 3,000 in Connecticut— have died from COVID-19. They account for more than 44 percent of U.S. coronavirus deaths, even though less than one percent of Americans live in nursing homes. This is a national disgrace.

Anna Doroghazi of AARP Connecticut Shelly Sindland Photography

To date, Congress has passed four bills to address the devastating impact of coronavirus on Americans. Yet, these bills barely touch on the crisis raging in long-term care facilities. With only a few weeks until the district work period in August, what will it take for Congress to take meaningful action to protect nursing home residents?

For five months, nursing homes have been a hotbed for the virus—yet basic precautions to protect residents and staff are still not in place. AARP has heard gut-wrenching accounts from thousands of family members worried about their loved ones in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Eva is a Connecticut resident whose husband, a nursing home resident, died of COVID-19 in May. She told AARP, “This was unnecessary – he was susceptible, but he didn’t have to die. I thought the nursing home would take better care of him. I thought he was safe.”

Eva is not alone. Other family members of nursing home residents have expressed concerns about staffing levels, frustration about the amount of information available, and worries about whether staff and residents have access to personal protective equipment. Many believe that nursing home staff are trying their best, but they need additional support, resources, and guidance to keep residents safe and healthy.

It’s time for federal lawmakers to come together to pass a bipartisan COVID-19 response package with dedicated funding and five key policies to protect seniors living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities:

  1. Ensure regular, ongoing testing and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
  2. Create transparency focused on daily, public reporting of cases and deaths in facilities, communication with families when loved ones are discharged or transferred, and accountability for how billions of dollars in federal funding is spent.
  3. Require access to facilitated virtual visitation.
  4. Provide better care for residents through adequate staffing, oversight, and access to in-person formal advocates, called long-term care ombudsmen.
  5. Stop attempts to provide blanket immunity for long-term care facilities related to COVID-19.

The hopeful news is that legislation has been introduced in Congress that will help save the lives of nursing home residents. However, what remains missing is the will to make these older Americans and their families a priority.

Our elected leaders must act now to protect Connecticut’s long-term care residents and staff before the death toll rises even higher. This is literally life or death.

Anna Doroghazi is Associate State Director of AARP Connecticut.

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