Minnesota senior-care facilities, particularly nursing homes, “were just kind of hung out to dry” by the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sen. Karin Housley said in an exclusive phone interview this week with the News Tribune Opinion page.
Before dismissing her comment as the partisan protest of a Republican lawmaker against the administration of a DFL governor, consider that at the outset of the outbreak, the focus in Minnesota was on protecting and preparing hospitals for an influx of patients. The state even bought a $6 million refrigerated warehouse in anticipation of bodies overwhelming funeral homes and morgues. The warehouse in St. Paul was never used. Meanwhile, senior facilities were largely left out of any early-on consideration.
“Even three weeks in, they still didn’t have any testing (in senior facilities),” said Housley, the chairwoman of the Senate Family Care and Aging Committee. “It took a long time for the Department of Health to come around and realize that they missed the boat.”
Consider, too, that by the third week of May, Minnesota had the highest percentage of any other state of nursing home-related COVID-19 deaths. An alarming more than 80% of COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota were in our nursing homes.
Ecumen Lakeshore on London Road was just one of the most recent Minnesota facilities to be listed by state Health officials as having an “outbreak,” as the News Tribune reported this week.
“What happened?” the Minnesota Family Council asked in a June 12 op-ed on its website. “Minnesota had followed New York and other states in funneling COVID-19 patients out of hospitals and into nursing homes.”
COVID-19 patients instead should have been sent from hospitals to so-called cohort facilities to recover alongside other COVID-19 patients, Housley contended. In such facilities, which can be created within vacant hotels or senior-living facilities, patients can be isolated from healthy Minnesotans, protecting the uninfected population. It’s preferable to “having (COVID-19 patients) in the same building and sometimes with the same ventilation system as healthy seniors,” said Housley.
Consider additionally that it wasn’t until May before Gov. Tim Walz produced a “battle plan” for addressing the spread of the coronavirus in long-term care facilities. And he did so while continuing to insist that discharging COVID-19 patients to nursing homes was not a mistake.
“When dealing with a virus that is especially dangerous to older populations and can be spread by pre-symptomatic individuals for over a week before they show signs of infection, discharging patients to nursing homes is gambling with the lives of nursing home residents,” Patience Griswold wrote for the Minnesota Family Council, a nonpartisan Christian organization with conservative goals. “At the heart of this problem is a disregard for human life and dignity. No society that truly values life is willing to tolerate a low standard of care for its vulnerable members. With over 80% of Minnesota’s COVID-19 deaths occurring in nursing homes, far too little was done to protect residents. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, nursing home residents have faced loneliness and isolation in hopes of being protected from the virus only to find themselves in COVID-19 hotspots. The mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Minnesota’s long-term care facilities reveals a dismissive attitude toward human life and dignity. For the families that have lost loved ones, the state’s response has been far too little and far too late.”
Was the state’s approach a mistake? Housley certainly thinks so. She also thinks the state still must increase coronavirus testing at senior care facilities and expand safe access in senior facilities for more family visits. Residents are “dying of loneliness,” she said.
Even if some of Housley’s position is rooted in partisan protest, the alarming death toll in Minnesota’s nursing homes over the past three months cannot be denied. It demands an in-depth review of the state’s approach, with changes made for the well-being of all Minnesotans. We can learn from our mistakes.