Editor’s Note: Robert Egge is the chief public policy officer of the Alzheimer’s Association and the executive director of the Alzheimer’s Impact Movement. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The battle against Alzheimer’s has never been easy. This devastating disease has been wreaking havoc on families across the globe for far too long. More than 5 million Americans are already living with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, this number is projected to nearly triple to 14 million. Researchers, lawmakers and the Alzheimer’s Association have been working aggressively to combat this global killer, but a new challenge is threatening those we are working to support.
Coronavirus is the pandemic that few predicted. It has not only changed our lives, it has taken lives. Over 120,000 deaths have been confirmed in the United States. As many as 2.3 million Americans have contracted the virus, and the tally may be 10 times higher than reported, according to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield.
The Covid-19 massive outbreak has swept across the globe and created a perfect storm of destruction for those whose health is already weak. Dementia-related behaviors, increased age and common health conditions that often accompany dementia increase the risk of Covid-19, leaving people with Alzheimer’s and other conditions alike among the most vulnerable during the current crisis. Many families entrust long-term care communities to provide good attention and safety for their loved ones, including the 48% who have Alzheimer’s or another dementia. But it has become apparent that their lives are at greater risk than ever before.
It wasn’t until mid-March that the CDC announced that Covid-19 had permeated nursing homes. Long-term care and assisted living communities were not fully informed about the factors that cause spread and ill-equipped to prevent or slow it once they were alerted.
The problem is so pervasive that on June 16 the US House of Representatives launched an investigation asking the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and five nursing home companies for details about their structure and preparedness for the coronavirus crisis. The Congressional panel is probing a wide range of issues, including whether enough testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies were available in the care settings for patients and staff. And while it is important to learn from the past for future planning, what’s most important right now is recognizing that this is still a crisis that has gone unaddressed, and we need a comprehensive response to provide nursing homes what they need right now.
After months trying to determine the toll this virus is having on these residents and staff, the CMS provided a preliminary answer earlier this month, and then updated their numbers quickly after. It now reports that nearly 32,000 have died from the virus in nursing homes and 60,000 were infected. This is a tragic statistic but it does not even paint the full picture of devastation. These numbers only include federally regulated nursing homes not assisted living facilities.
The CMS has announced more aggressive infection control measures, but increasing fines and withholding funds is not the urgent and immediate remedy needed to allow nursing homes to care for their residents properly. The death toll has reached unacceptable heights because of the limited testing and lack of PPE in facilities across the country.
The Alzheimer’s Association has been sounding the alarm for our publicly elected officials to better protect long-term care residents, including the release of specific policy recommendations for improving the state and federal response to the pandemic in long-term care settings. These guidelines, which include enhanced testing and reporting, protocols for responding to “hot spots” and ensuring all long-term care communities have necessary equipment to protect themselves and their residents, are critical and desperately needed.
An analysis of state data gathered by USA Today found that more than 40,600 long-term care residents and workers have died of Covid-19 over the last three months. This makes up between 35% to 40% of the nation’s death toll attributed to the coronavirus. While this helps show the dire need for policies to protect those most vulnerable during this pandemic, this data undersells the true amount of harm this virus has caused.
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Seven states, including Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, Missouri and Michigan, did not provide the number of deaths in long-term care to the study, and to further complicate the tally, New York, the state with the most resident deaths, did not include those who had been transferred to hospitals.
Given all that is now known, the national response to this still developing crisis needs to be swift, effective and coordinated across federal, state and local governments so that we support all long-term care communities immediately.
The Alzheimer’s Association implores our elected officials to help support those living with dementia, and their caregivers, by implementing immediate policies to support nursing homes and assisted living communities. More than 2.4 million people live in long-term care settings, and every single one of their lives are in jeopardy until the necessary policies are in place to protect them.