June 14, 2020

Finally, there seems to be definitive action to address COVID-19 in senior health facilities. Governor Cooper’s DHHS department announced late last week that they are requiring testing for staff and residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state.

A comprehensive article on the issue by WRAL’s Travis Fain reported that Friends of Residents, an advocacy group for nursing home and assisted living residents across NC, had been “pushing [NCDHHS] for a month to require these tests for staff and residents.”

The article addresses the slow reaction by the Cooper administration’s response to senior health care facilities as disease hotspots, stating: “Increasingly, GOP lawmakers have pointed to the fact that 60 percent of North Carolina’s total deaths from COVID-19 were people who lived in nursing homes or residential care facilities, and they’ve questioned the state’s handling of the issue. ‘There’s no coherent plan,’ Republican 3rd District Congressman Greg Murphy, a physician and former state legislator, said this week. ‘It’s throwing things up against a wall and hoping that they stick.’”

One of the saddest things about the COVID-19 pandemic is how it appears to have greatly impacted, at least so far, senior adults, particularly those who have underlying medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, or hypertension.  

According to the WRAL.com article, “North Carolina’s official death toll from COVID-19 was 1,064 as of Thursday. Of those who died, 559 lived in nursing homes, and another 83 were in residential care facilities, according to Department of Health and Human Services statistics updated every Tuesday and Friday. That’s 60 percent of all the state’s deaths.”

In the early months as health experts were trying to understand and deal with the coronavirus, back in March and early April, it became apparent that seniors were extremely vulnerable to the disease, making disease hotspots of elderly health care centers like skilled nursing facilities and assisted care facilities. It’s hard to imagine how overwhelmed they must have felt as they realized the magnitude of what was happening.

As news services put statewide maps in their newspapers and on websites showing where CV-19 positive cases and deaths from the virus were occurring, the general public quickly became aware that our senior population in these facilities were in big trouble. They needed help.

There were public reports of senior care facilities not allowing visitors and taking strong steps to stop the spread of the virus, and the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) appeared to be active in all this process.

What seemed to be missing was a call to arms by Governor Cooper, a dedicated mustering of bodies and experts focused on these viral hotspots. That’s what occurs when we have a natural disaster such as a tornado outbreak, hurricane or wildfire where state emergency experts make a plan, go into action and put major resources into the recognized areas needing immediate and urgent care.

Instead, the press conference we heard from the governor over and over seemed to constantly focus more on shutting down businesses and getting people off the street than to sound the alarm to help our elderly health care facilities who had a disaster on their hands.

Western NC Strike Team

In contrast, there were places where this SWAT team mentality went into action at a local level and made a difference. In Hendersonville, where an assisted living facility quickly realized it was in trouble after two residents tested positive, a strike team was assembled to go into throw immediate resources at the crisis. 

Mark Shepherd, a trauma and critical care physician assistant and assistant chief of the Henderson County Rescue Squad, had been talking about COVID-19 since late February, warning of tough times to come, and getting his team prepared for what he believed was to come. According to an article on NorthCarolinaHealthNews.org, he was motivated “by his training in viral outbreaks and his observation of the disease’s eruption in China and Italy. Well before COVID-19 reached Hendersonville, Shepherd had worked with the rescue squad to make sure all tools necessary to fight the disease were in place. That meant more training for the largely volunteer staff, taking stock of personal protective equipment or PPE, giving fitness tests, and making clear relationships among several groups and agencies.

The article describes how Henderson County, led by Shepherd’s rescue squad team, “became a pioneering collaboration among Cherry Springs staff and owners at Affinity Living Group, physicians, nurses, county EMS staff and volunteers, area churches, the county health department, a family liaison, a local hospice and people to help with logistics.”

Why didn’t the governor and his health experts in Raleigh do something similar and throw massive resources at the COVID hotspot – senior health facilities – to help them out? We’ll probably never know.

Thankfully, senior health care facilities are now being required to do comprehensive testing at every facility. We’re glad they’re finally getting directives and focused attention. Sadly and unfortunately for so many families, for too long the slow-reacting Cooper administration appears to have not focused as much on our seniors at risk in health care facilities as they did on shutting down our state economy.