By Laurie Facciarossa Brewer, NJ’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman
The COVID-19 crisis in long-term care facilities is an unprecedented national tragedy. Around the country, tens of thousands of vulnerable residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities have died.
In fact, as of today in New Jersey, more than 5,400 long-term care residents have lost their lives due to the pandemic. To better put this into perspective, these deaths are more than half of New Jersey’s total cases.
Not only are the numbers themselves horrifying, but the inability of family and friends to physically be there with their loved ones in their final moments-as facilities were locked down to attempt to prevent more infection-makes it all the more painful and traumatic.
I mourn and hold dear the loss of each of these residents and wish peace and healing for their loved ones. And I am deeply concerned about the health and welfare of the long-term care residents who remain, and about the staff who care for them.
As an independent state agency that advocates for long-term care residents by investigating allegations of abuse and mistreatment, the New Jersey Office of the Long-Term Care (NJ LTCO) Ombudsman has been in the forefront in attempting to help residents and families deal with any issues or problems they may be having during this health emergency.
The investigation process
Usually, when we receive a complaint or concern, we make an unannounced visit to the resident in question and obtain consent to do an investigation.
Unfortunately, those visits stopped on March 13 when the federal and state government decided to severely restrict any visits to long-term care facilities, including by state regulators, families and representatives of the Ombudsman program.
The sudden inability to go into the facilities to witness what was happening there–to see firsthand the staffing levels and the physical conditions–and to have to rely on phone calls, FaceTime and other technologies to gain insight into what was truly happening, was very jarring and required some out-of-the-box thinking.
Fortunately, the NJ LTCO has highly seasoned and experienced investigators who have deep contacts in, and experience with, long-term care facilities in New Jersey.
In addition, the NJ LTCO has more than 200 highly trained volunteer ombudsmen assigned to an equal number of nursing homes. Under normal circumstances, these volunteers would be in their assigned nursing home every week, speaking with residents and handling their concerns.
So, even though we are not visiting LTC facilities, the NJ LTCO is well-positioned to reach deep into a facility and identify the right person who can solve problems for residents and their families.
Our volunteers continue to keep in contact with residents in nursing homes and have distributed letters reminding residents that the NJ LTCO is still here to assist them with any problems they may be having.
The dramatic increase in calls and cases
Our investigators have never been busier.
During March and April, calls to the NJ LTCO intake line increased by 40 percent, as did the number of cases opened for investigation.
The types of complaints that we have been receiving reflect the deepening crisis in long-term care. Here are some examples:
- A woman called to tell us that her 56-year-old sister was on a ventilator, fighting for her life after being diagnosed with COVID-19. The long-term care facility in which her sister lived, she alleged, had refused to send her sister to the hospital.
- A 71-year-old, bed-bound resident called the NJ LTCO to complain that she was not receiving her medication and that she hadn’t been changed–and was sitting in her own urine for more than 24 hours.
- A nurse called to tell us that she was the only one who showed up to care for more than 60 residents during an evening shift in a nursing home.
- A man called to see if we could find his mother, who was COVID-19-positive, had a fever and had been hurriedly moved out of her nursing into another one–with no advance notice to the family. He didn’t know if his mother was dead or alive.
- A family member called to report that he was informed that his father had a fever, that COVID-19 was suspected and that he was fine. He was called 90 minutes later and told that his father had died.
- Multiple staff members called the NJ LTCO intake line to report that they were not given proper personal protection equipment (PPE) in order to care for residents safely.
- Dozens of family members called us to state that their loved ones died of COVID-19, alone and without family by their side. Most of these callers alleged care neglect due to poor staffing.
As this crisis unfolds into late spring and early summer, it appears that there is more PPE and more testing available. These are the two things that are absolutely critical to stemming the tide of this horrific virus and getting to a place where our office, state regulators, and families and friends can once again visit long-term care residents.
Stepping up outreach
In the meantime, here at the NJ LTCO, we continue to adapt to this new reality. While we look forward to the day when we can go back into long-term care facilities, we are stepping up our outreach to residents via newsletters, direct phone calls and utilization of tablets and smart phones.
In mid-May, we began to distribute a resident-focused monthly newsletter to residents of long-term care facilities. In the inaugural edition, we remind residents that they have rights and that they can always call us for assistance. In addition, we remind them that most of them will get a $1,200 stimulus payment as a result of the COVID-19-related CARES Act and that this money is theirs-and no one can take it from them.
Conditions at long-term care facilities; hope for the ensuing months
I wish I could say that the tragedy of COVID-19 in our long-term care facilities was totally unforeseeable, but that would not be the whole truth. While the scope and speed at which the COVID-19 tragedy unfolded were certainly new, the conditions in many of our long-term care facilities were ripe to fuel this type of situation.
In the ensuing months, it is my hope that we will see the effects of this terrible virus wane in long-term care facilities. In its wake, I am sure that there will be a clear-eyed assessment of how we, as a society, could have done more to protect vulnerable elderly and disabled people living in residential settings. We have learned much about this virus and the terrible toll it can take in long-term care facilities. My expectation is that we all will apply the lessons we have learned so that we are better prepared for any future outbreaks.
The thousands of souls we have lost and the thousands of vulnerable elderly and disabled people currently living in long-term care facilities deserve at least that much.
Any opinions expressed within guest blogs are those of the author and are not necessarily held by NJ Foundation for Aging.