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HHS report: Nursing home deaths soared in 2020

A newly released report by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) concludes Medicare patient deaths in nursing homes increased by 32% during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study is the first comprehensive look at how the coronavirus devastated the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. The results show four out of 10 residents had or likely had COVID-19 and that deaths increased by nearly 170,000 from the year before.

Flaws were exposed in government and provider responses

The inspector general’s report shows death rates increased every month in 2020 compared to 2019. However, the two largest spikes in nursing home deaths happened eight months apart:

  • April 2020: 81,484
  • December 2020: 74,299

Health experts believe these outbreaks illustrate weaknesses in government and provider measures for protecting patients before vaccines became widely available. Deaths soared in December despite lockdowns and expanded testing. Once vaccination rates climbed, fatalities swiftly declined.

Mortality and infection rates hit people of color harder

The study shows that death rates were higher for Black, Asian and Latino patients than white nursing home residents. According to Medicare data, nonwhite residents were more likely to contract the virus:

  • Black: 51%
  • Hispanic: 49%
  • Asian: 47%
  • White: 41%

The data shows the infection rate for low-income nursing home patients was even greater as 56% were infected.  Of those patients, 26% died, compared to 27% of Asians, 24% of whites and 23% of Blacks and Hispanics. However, the increase in mortality rates from 2019 was more significant for all nonwhite residents.

What does the study mean for the future?

Researchers believe COVID-19 found ideal conditions to spread among nursing home residents, who are typically in poorer health and live in close quarters. Many say the virus was likely spread by staffers who unknowingly brought it in from surrounding communities.

While facilities locked down in March of 2020, government efforts were chaotic as the Trump administration delegated the responsibility for testing to the states early on. There were also shortages of personal protective equipment, such as masks.

Health experts say while the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be winding down, lessons need to be learned for protecting the most vulnerable citizens in the future as infectious diseases will not go away altogether.

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