The Covid-19 epidemic has ravaged assisted living communities, and the illness itself is only part of the problem. Increasingly, staffing shortages have made it difficult for otherwise healthy residents to get the care they need. Relatives of seniors in nursing homes should be watchful for signs of neglect, although Covid-19 protocols might stymie their efforts. “The Consumer Voice” points out that nursing home residents sometimes rely on relatives to provide supplemental care, but since March, many nursing homes have followed safety protocols that include limiting or banning visits. (Their statement calls on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to allow at least one relative to visit the elderly patient, through whatever barrier or social-distanced means necessary, to ensure that their loved one is properly cared for.) Tragically, protocols meant to slow the spread of Covid-19 may have had inadvertently resulted in the death of some nursing home residents.
How Does Neglect Happen?
The Associated Press reports that aside from the 90,000 nursing home deaths from Covid-19, as many as 40,000 deaths have resulted from the difficult circumstances surrounding the outbreak. In some recent cases, neglect has proven so extreme that seniors have died from dehydration. Several of the relatives profiled in the AP article say their elderly parent languished without water for days. As the AP points out, for vulnerable adults, the cause for a precipitous decline can be as minor as untrimmed toenails. Ill-fitting dentures and other dental problems have often gone unchecked because of the restrictions on visits from dental care staff. Patients who die might have their cause of death listed as something as anodyne as “failure to thrive,” which does not reflect the ugly reality of neglect.
Chronic understaffing plagued many nursing homes well before the pandemic. This offers no excuse for the nursing homes, who have a duty to their patients (not to mention CMS) to secure backup staff and medical supplies. Yet even nursing homes with typically high standards of care for their patients have suffered the consequences of overworked staff. Relatives have reported that prior to COVID-19, their elderly parents seemed to thrive at their assisted living facility, only to quickly deteriorate following months of decline in their quality of care.
Nursing Home Wrongful Death Lawsuits
One lawsuit in Pennsylvania makes it clear that wrongful nursing home deaths are not necessarily the fault of the caretakers, but rather the facility. The Pennsylvania Department of Health found that a Milton, PA nursing home did not implement a protocol to protect both residents and staff, resulting in 59 staff members contracting the viral infection. Nursing staff cannot provide adequate care when a facility does not provide adequate protection.
Many states have recently enacted laws in response to the pandemic that make it difficult for relatives to sue in the case of a wrongful death. In North Carolina, Barron’s reports that residents will have a more difficult time seeking damages for wrongful deaths – not that aggrieved parties shouldn’t try. At the very least, their suits might bring more attention to the pervasive issue of neglect in nursing homes. Kathleen Hoke, a director for Public Health Law, explained to Barron’s that these new laws should not protect facilities who engaged in neglect before the pandemic, but that “it’s going to take litigation to figure out all these parameters.”
What Can I Do?
If you have a relative who did not receive adequate nursing home care due to the pandemic, you should reach out to attorneys who have experience litigating cases of elder abuse. Contact the attorneys of Fitapelli Kurta for a free consultation. Call (877) 238-4175 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.