If intensive care units were the front lines of COVID-19 containment two months ago, the battle lines have shifted to long-term care centers. And while the state collects data on how well those facilities are handling the outbreak and protecting patients, the public should know — in real time — results of those inspections.
A recent report in Commonwealth Magazine underscores the need. The magazine, published by the think tank MassINC, says audits of more than 350 nursing centers across the state are finding that a “significant number” are not where they should be when it comes to controlling spread of the coronavirus. The 28-point audits, announced by the state last month, look at areas such as staffing, access to protective equipment and how well facilities separate residents known to be infected with COVID-19. The magazine cited sources calling the audit process messy, with unclear standards guiding inspectors.
It’s a chilling report, albeit one slim on details. The coronavirus is especially treacherous for seniors, and some long-term care centers are clearly struggling to contain it.
We shouldn’t have to wait for data. The public should know promptly how these centers stack up. The state has signaled plans to release its audits, just as every routine inspection of a nursing home or long-term care facility is ultimately released made public. But this particular information should not have to wait to be vetted by bureaucracy before it sees the light of day.
The stakes are painfully high. Earlier this month, 48 residents of Mary Immaculate Nursing/Restorative Center in Lawrence were reported dead after contracting COVID-19. Their deaths represented more than half of the overall fatalities from the disease in the city. A couple weeks earlier, officials at Masconomet Healthcare Center in Topsfield acknowledged 11 deaths of residents from COVID-19, and dozens more who’d tested positive.
Long-term care facilities had been the settings of 3 in 5 deaths attributed to COVID-19 statewide, as of the end of last week.
Credit goes to Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration for their response. Indeed, it was the state’s plan to address the COVID-19 in nursing homes that prompted these audits.
The 28-point inspections will sort centers into three categories — those that are in “adherence” with standards, those in adherence but needing a follow-up inspection, or ones not in adherence at all. The facilities’ scores on the first and subsequent audits will determine how much they get from a $130 million state fund created to help them cope with the coronavirus. That’s only half of the money the state has put toward controlling the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities.
State auditors spent the first two weeks of this month visiting long-term care facilities for the first round of “baseline” audits. Other inspections will follow.
The process creates an incentive for facilities to improve and to use state money in areas where it’s most needed. These audits also create an important check for families of nursing home residents, who are separated from their loved ones and only allowed to visit from the other side of the window due to precautions taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Questions raised by these inspections — about staff training in identifying symptoms of COVID-19, or the frequency of screening patients for COVID-19 — are burning topics for every family. And they should have answers to them promptly.
A state description of these audits promises public reporting. The Baker administration must see to it that it happens quickly.