How can this be?
Every day, workers in nursing homes across America are still suffering shortages of the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to keep themselves and those they care for safe.
It’s unconscionable that some of our most vulnerable populations and their caregivers are being put in such danger during a global pandemic. But it doesn’t have to be this way — not if our country acts right now to ramp up production and distribution of PPE to where it’s needed most.
Equipment shortages are putting nursing home residents and workers in danger
On Oct. 27, PIRG released a report by our partners U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group, which found that:
As of late August, 226,495 residents in 2,981 nursing homes nationwide were at risk because the homes had dangerously low supplies of one or more types of PPE, such as N95 masks and gowns.
Nearly half (46 percent) of all nursing homes nationwide didn’t have a one-week supply of at least one type of PPE at some point from May through August.
The shortages actually got worse over the course of the summer, with the number of homes that were completely out of masks, gowns and eye protection tripling between mid-July and late August.
There’s no question these shortages pose a danger to nursing home residents and workers. Though they contain less than one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population, nursing homes have produced 27 percent of COVID-19 deaths nationwide due to a variety of factors, primarily an older, and therefore vulnerable, population living in close quarters. When a nursing home worker has to reuse PPE — or go without it entirely — it makes an extremely difficult situation even worse.
Do you have a loved one in a nursing home? Check out our guide to finding information about a specific residence, or consult our checklist of questions to ask your nursing home to make sure it’s protected against COVID-19.
What these shortages could mean in the coming months
The data show that, in general, the increase in severity of equipment shortages over the course of the summer corresponded to the nationwide surge in COVID cases we experienced in the second half of July. The shortages have continued during the autumn months — and now, with cases surging once again just as winter arrives, shortages will likely remain a major problem.
The consequences of letting these shortages continue are dire. For instance, not only can outbreaks occur rapidly in a setting such as a nursing home, but they can also spread via a home’s under-protected workers to their larger communities. Lives, including those most vulnerable to COVID-19, depend on nursing home workers having the protective supplies necessary to safely give care to those who need it.
How Congress can stop the shortages
This is a national problem that requires a national solution. Congress should pass legislation to improve and centrally coordinate the supply chain so critical equipment can get where it’s needed most. Months ago, a 25-member commission organized by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued urgent warnings that PPE shortages could likely become even more dire. And the Coronavirus Commission on Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes in September said homes continued to be plagued by shortages of PPE, as well as testing and staffing shortages. “Additional federal action is necessary to ensure sufficient availability of high-quality testing and PPE,” the commission wrote. “Without this, and related training, the virus will continue to spread.
That’s where the Medical Supply Transparency and Delivery Act comes in. Passing this bill could be a game-changer for the many places that are still dangerously short on PPE. For instance, the act would help keep prices stable because states, individual health care facilities, school systems and businesses wouldn’t be competing against each other for supplies, as the current system forces them to.
What you can do
If we’re going to solve this problem and get more protective equipment to our nursing homes, we need as many voices as possible to join our call for Congress to pass the Medical Supply Transparency and Delivery Act.
Consumer Watchdog, PIRG
Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.