How Did COVID-19 Reshape The Landscape Of Nursing Home Abuse?

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, nursing homes across the nation found themselves in the eye of the storm – and this news should come as no surprise. Even before the current global health crisis, nursing homes experienced chronic problems with infection control, so introducing a new, virulent condition into communal living settings with vulnerable residents and insufficient resources made nursing homes the eye of the storm. 

As dreadful as the statistics around COVID-19 are in nursing home settings, with nursing homes linked to at least 2 in 5 deaths according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study reported by AARP, these statistics are not the most worrisome issue facing nursing homes residents and their families. Rather, given that one of the safety restrictions instituted by nursing homes during the pandemic was a ban on visitors, there is great concern that the preexisting abuse crisis may be that much worse.

Understanding The Crisis

Nursing home neglect and abuse are sadly common issues, often characterized by frequent infections, physical injuries, weight loss and dehydration, and increased anxiety and depression. During more typical times, however, regular visits by friends and family are the first line of defense. Now, patients don’t have visitors, and many care homes are even more severely understaffed than before because of staff illness and attrition, all of which could worsen patient treatment.

Seeking Immunity – And Fighting Back

As families come to terms with conditions their relatives are living in and how they have been treated during the pandemic, nursing homes are working to defend themselves against legal charges. In particular, a number are seeking to use COVID-19 related healthcare heroes immunity laws to avoid responsibility for non-COVID deaths. This is an abuse of legitimate legal protections, meant to address COVID-related negligence claims, such as the failure to provide PPE when none was legitimately available, and families need to fight back.

Fighting Bad Immunity Claims

Both the families of patients who were victims of more conventional types of nursing home abuse and neglect and those either sickened or killed by COVID-19 infections due to the inaction of nursing homes deserve to pursue justice, but it can be discouraging when faced with current legal barriers. That’s why it’s important to work with an experienced elder abuse lawyer who is familiar with the standard practices in congregate care settings, as well as the legal changes that nursing homes are attempting to leverage to avoid these charges.

In addition to working with an experienced lawyer, families may want to consider lobbying their elected officials on this topic. There are a number of administrative changes focused on greater organization transparency that could both help families to make legal claims now, and reduce the likelihood of resident mistreatment in the future. After all, it’s not enough to seek retribution in a single case; legal action should seek to change things for future residents.

Fraught Conditions And A Worrisome Future

Though many patient deaths early in the pandemic were unavoidable due to the lack of avoidable PPE and testing in hospitals, never mind in nursing homes, there were also countless ways in which care facilities could have done more to keep patients and staff safe. So, although it is reasonable to offer nursing homes some degree of protection in the name of ensuring a critical industry continues, we can’t allow those protections to go too far. Families and patients still need access to the courts and should have the right to pursue their cases. 

Rather than block all suits in the name of provider heroics, maybe it’s time to let nursing home administrators stand before a judge and jury and plead their case. If they are really blameless for the deaths that happened on their watch – especially the many non-COVID negligence deaths – then the courts will find in their favor. For the sake of patients and their families, though, it is unjust to block those cases before they can happen.

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