What You Should Do If Your Loved One Lives In a Nursing Home During Coronavirus Pandemic

A Washington woman visits her husband of 60 years at quarantined nursing home.
Washington state woman visits her husband of 60 years, who is quarantined in a nursing home. Getty

Nursing home residents are some of the highest-risk people for coronavirus.

Ground zero for coronavirus deaths in the United States is a nursing home in the Seattle area, where at least 26 people linked to the facility have died, according to state health officials.

Since their first patient tested positive last month, the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, has been deluged by anxious relatives who said they were not able to receive information on their loved ones and were reduced to tapping on residents' windows for a glimpse of their relatives. 

Some 31 additional patients have tested positive for the virus earlier this week, health officials said.

“Our experience with this so far has shown that the virus is volatile and unpredictable,” Tim Killian, a public liaison for the center, recently told reporters. “We’ve had patients who, within an hour’s time, show no symptoms to going to acute symptoms and being transferred to the hospital. And we’ve had patients die relatively quickly under those circumstances. …We know very little about how fast this may act.”

As the virus worsens, health officials say the most at-risk populations are the elderly, and those with compromised respiratory and immune systems. Nowhere are those symptoms more evident than in long-term care facilities for senior citizens, who already suffer underlying health issues and in most cases, are unable to fend for themselves.

Senior citizens' advocates have long said under-staffing and crowded conditions at nursing homes have sometimes resulted in poor care and dangerous conditions for the infirm. 

The United States is particularly handicapped in dealing with nursing home residents afflicted with the virus. According to an international health survey conducted by The Commonwealth Fund, the U.S. ranked at, or near the bottom, in categories including including access, affordability, timeliness of care, and care coordination for elderly patients.

The 2017 survey looked at senior care in 11 high-income countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Germany.

In America, because of close quarters, joint meals and group activities, germs can spread in such facilities at speeds rivaling those in a preschool filled with runny-nosed toddlers. 

In his address to the nation Wednesday night, President Trump urged senior care homes to ban outside visitors. On Thursday, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo barred visitors to state senior centers for the same reason.

In Washington, local officials have limited visits to one person, per day for nursing home residents in the Seattle area. 

So if you have an elderly relative living in a long-term care institution, what should you do? Here's what experts have said as of now:

Don't visit, for now. 

Though it runs counter to matters of the heart, worried relatives are advised to stay away from assisted living centers and nursing homes. Children and young  adults may carry COVID-19 without symptoms, and introducing the virus to a vulnerable population could have deadly consequences, according to medical experts.

Keep in touch remotely.

Instead of visiting, phone your relatives. Or use Skype or FaceTime if such means are available. Or use the old-fashioned postal system and mail a card.

Don't move patients.

It may seem very tempting to consider bringing a loved one home to protect them and care for them yourself, but that's a bad idea. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not encourage such moves, noting that moving a vulnerable person into a new environment means new exposure to germs and the virus. Also, 24-hour care is more demanding than many family members realize, health experts warn.

Don't be afraid to speak up.

A Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services memo issued last week advises nursing home staff to limit sharing pens, medical equipment and telephones. Such surfaces should be regularly disinfected, and gowns and masks should be used when treating ill residents.

Don't hesitate to phone staff to discuss what procedures are in place to protect your loved ones, experts said. 

Families can also check Medicare’s five-star rating system to learn about their nursing home’s record on infection control.