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Opinions & observations: We must protect the ‘Greatest Generation’ in our nursing homes

July 21, 2020 Councilmember Justin Brannan and Joanne Seminara, Esq. Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Though we have honored our senior citizens with the title “The Greatest Generation,” when it came to those living in nursing homes during this pandemic, our actual treatment of them was nothing short of appalling. Those unlucky enough to be in a nursing home or other congregate care facility during the pandemic found themselves to be nothing more than sitting ducks, cut off from their families and friends, helpless and hopeless. An egregious 6 percent of New York State’s nursing home population died from COVID-19, not counting those residents who died after being transferred to hospitals from such facilities.

Beginning in late March, and virtually every day in April and May, concerned residents frantically called our offices begging for help in learning news about their loved ones, as they were completely locked out from any visitation or other contact. And while we attempted to assuage their fears and alleviate their frustrations, we were no more able to find out what was happening behind the locked doors of our local nursing homes than they were. It was all too common for families to hear nothing from the nursing home staff or administration until they got a call that their loved one had died — sometimes days or a week after the fact.

Councilmember Justin Brannan (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights). Photo: Brooklyn Eagle File

This tragic situation is unacceptable and calls our own state government’s actions in contributing to this atrocity into question. Unbeknownst to many elected officials, inserted into New York state budget bill was language that gave immunity to nursing homes for their inability to care for residents and all possible negligent acts or omissions, whether related to COVID or not. This, while family members were locked out and loved ones suffered and died alone.

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order that mandated that already overwhelmed nursing homes take in new patients who had tested positive was a death knell for many residents. Granting nursing homes limited immunity during the COVID crisis might have been reasonable, but why should a resident who falls out of bed and fractures her hip because a facility fails to respond to calls for help, or neglects to put up the bed rails, be denied their common right to bring suit?

Bay Ridge community leader Joanne Seminara, Esq. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle File

In the meantime, this crisis has made clear that the time for serious nursing home reform has come. While we must appoint an independent investigator to conduct a thorough review of what happened inside nursing homes when no one from the outside could enter, we also need to examine entrenched deficiencies, including inadequate staffing, poor infection control measures, lack of communication to loved ones, use of personal protective equipment and the failure to meaningfully respond to patient complaints.  Facilities cannot remain under-prepared for the provision of regular day-to-day care or the next public health crisis.

Finally, we must work with the state government to draft and adopt an enhanced Resident Bill of Rights and shore up woefully inadequate oversight and enforcement.  Family members need to be educated about nursing home obligations, ranging from communicating with loved ones to mandatory discharge protocols.

The families who had loved ones in a home during the pandemic were not prepared to advocate for their loved ones and log complaints, and were overwhelmed by the prospect of navigating a home’s bureaucracy to obtain basic information. Nursing homes wield enormous power over and responsibility for the health, safety, and welfare of their residents. Residents and families have a right to and deserve accountability.

We must do better to protect our Greatest Generation from such disproportionate suffering and death and enact measures that will restore and maintain the care and dignity they so richly deserve.


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