Editorial: Newsom’s failed response to COVID-19 nursing home deaths

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At least 41% of California coronavirus deaths from eldercare facilities, and cases there are increasing rapidly

 When it comes to care facilities for the elderly, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s actions have been misguided and dangerous. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,File)

Gov. Gavin Newsom is recklessly pushing to place more coronavirus patients in nursing homes and assisted living facilities while COVID-19 cases and deaths are mounting rapidly in California’s care residences for the elderly.

State data shows that at least 41 percent of all known coronavirus deaths in California have occurred among residents and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Meanwhile, the number of nursing home deaths jumped 51% in eight days from April 23-May 1. And deaths in assisted living facilities nearly doubled between April 20-May 3.

We can’t keep letting our housing for the aged turn into death traps.

Clearly, eldercare facilities have become hotspots for the spread of the virus. And, as we all know by now, the death rate from COVID-19 escalates with age. But, as the cases and deaths mount, the state continues to press for placing more coronavirus patients in the facilities, while hiding data about individual facilities from families and the public.

Newsom deserves credit for leading the nation’s governors in requiring statewide sheltering to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus — although he acted only after Bay Area health officials imposed similar restrictions days earlier and he’s now moving too quickly to reopen.

When it comes to care facilities for the elderly, Newsom’s actions have been misguided and dangerous, with disregard for the state’s inadequate testing capacity. And his administration’s refusal to provide transparent data on individual facilities’ cases and deaths is inexcusable.

The governor last week issued an offer to pay, in some cases $1,000 per day, to assisted living facilities to house COVID-19 patients. That comes on top of his earlier directive that nursing homes should expect to take coronavirus patients.

“Any guidance from the government that opens the door to send more COVID-19 into a nursing home or assisted living facility, to me, is medically unsound,” said Dr. Michael Wasserman, a geriatrician and the president of the California Association of Long Term Medicine.

The offer to place patients in assisted living facilities, issued Friday, said the state prefers to segregate COVID-19 patients in empty buildings or structures separated from the rest of a facility. But the state didn’t rule out using other facilities if it can’t find ones that are housing only COVID-19 residents.

As for nursing homes, an April 24 guidance memo allows for transfer of patients without COVID-19 symptoms from hospitals to nursing homes without requiring coronavirus testing. Indeed, the state specifically forbids the nursing homes from requiring such testing. Never mind the high rate of transmission from asymptomatic carriers.

As for patients confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19, nursing homes “can be expected to accept” them as long as the facility follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention infection prevention and control recommendations, and it has adequate supplies of personal protective equipment. The latest data show how well that’s working out.

Equally disturbing is that patients and their families continue to be kept in the dark about the safety of individual facilities. The state refuses to release any data about deaths at specific nursing and assisted living homes.

And, citing privacy, it will only provide the number of coronavirus cases for homes with 11 or more cases — an arbitrary cutoff point that ignores the size of the facility or the fact that no names are being sought. The administration has refused to provide a rational explanation for the policy.

As the number of coronavirus cases increases rapidly in eldercare facilities, Newsom should stop the cover-up, release accurate and complete data on infections and deaths for each facility, and stop trying to send more COVID-19 patients into them.