Only four months ago, the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, had a high 5 star rating from the federal government. With more than 180 staff members to care for 120 residents, it offered reliable, attentive care to a vulnerable population.
But by mid-March 2020, 30 of the 46 confirmed coronavirus deaths in the state of Washington were associated with Life Care Center. Not only did this nursing home lose 25% of its residents to COVID-19, dozens of staff members reported COVID-19 symptoms and had to self-quarantine.
In the face of staff shortages, slow virus testing, and isolation of remaining patients, Life Care Center accepted support from the US Department of Health and Human Services. The DHHS sent a 28-person strike team to assist clinicians at the nursing home and get the outbreak under control.
In the words of former CDC director Tom Frieden, this Seattle-based nursing home became “ground zero” in the COVID-19 pandemic. Nursing homes around the country have responded by taking extreme precautionary measures in an effort to protect patients and staff members alike.
Nursing Home Residents Are Especially Vulnerable to Infection
Nursing homes are filled with elderly men and women, most of whom have chronic conditions that make them highly susceptible to diseases like the coronavirus. To make matters worse, residents of nursing homes tend to be frail with functional limitations, placing them at higher risk of serious illness.
Additionally, many nursing home residents need help using the toilet, getting dressed, eating, and getting in and out of bed. This requires close contact with nursing home staff and increases the likelihood of transmitting the virus from person to person.
As the CDC explains, “Given their congregate nature and resident population served, nursing home populations are at the highest risk of being affected by COVID-19. If infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, residents are at increased risk of serious illness.”
The Burdens on Staff Members Become Overwhelming
Just as the residents of nursing homes are most vulnerable to infection and severe illness, the staff members of these nursing homes are more exposed to the burdens of caring for high-risk patients.
Many caregivers and staff members do not receive paid sick leave and cannot afford to take unpaid time off, forcing them to work even while experiencing symptoms or extreme exhaustion. When staff members show signs of coronavirus and must quarantine for up to two weeks, the existing workforce shortages become exacerbated. Already overworked nurses must tend to more residents, making it harder to efficiently stop the spread of disease.
Dangerous Impacts of Safety Measures on Resident Well-Being
Beyond the physical implications of the coronavirus, nursing homes are also battling the emotional and psychological aspects of the outbreak.
As Alice Bonner, a geriatric nurse practitioner, explained, “Older people may experience anxiety or even depression due to social isolation during this time of social distancing. We need to be creative in safely providing opportunities for human interaction.”
As time goes on, nursing homes will continue to follow CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus to vulnerable patients while also balancing concerns for their emotional wellbeing.