Times Union, by Maria Alvarez, Aug. 25, 2020


When the first American deaths were reported in Seattle nursing homes, I feared the worst. We knew that COVID-19 would most threaten the lives of seniors and people in congregate settings. With an average age of 83 for seniors in New York’s nursing homes, it should not have taken much for state officials to recognize the potential unfolding disaster before them that would heavily impact older residents and those who are Black and Latinx.

Now, months later, with thousands of senior lives lost, New York enters phases of reopening. But new coronavirus cases and deaths persist daily in New York nursing homes and long-term facilities, resulting in visitor restrictions. In the month of June, New Yorkers living in nursing homes represented a shocking 30 percent of total COVID-related deaths across the state.

The devastation of the previous five months in nursing homes was exacerbated by COVID-19 in already-understaffed facilities with lax oversight and a shortage of long-term care ombudsmen. Pre-pandemic, one in five nursing homes already dealt with issues relating to infections. High staff turnover and low staffing ratios remain a commonplace issue, which decreases the quality of care that residents who are entitled to care with dignity receive.

All of this, of course, raises a red flag when we have an infectious and deadly virus that rapidly spread throughout the state. This rightfully causes many New Yorkers to seek alternative avenues of care, and we know that New Yorkers’ preference is to continue to live in their community-based homes.

The growing senior population cannot be ignored, and New York is ill prepared, with an already-looming workforce shortage of home care workers, to address even current needs.

Thankfully, our state has come a long way from turning to institutional settings as the only option of care for older New Yorkers and disabled individuals. Thousands of individuals and families prefer and trust community-based long-term care and self-direction options, like consumer-directed personal assistance and expanded in-home services for the elderly.

It will be important for policymakers to review and address the devastation of the pandemic, but they can’t stop there. There is also a crisis in home care that is marked by inadequate personal protective equipment and underfunding of staff recruitment and retention efforts, which was further reduced in the latest state budget. There is an ongoing shortage of home care workers for all clients needing care regardless of payer source.

Our state needs to take this opportunity to look toward the future and continue improving and funding our long-term care alternatives to congregate facilities. If not now, when?

Maria Alvarez is executive director of the New York StateWide Senior Action Council.

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