Recent HHS Data Show a 32% Increase in Deaths Among Nursing Home Residents

Posted on Friday, September 3rd, 2021 at 3:44 pm    

Certain members of the population were more vulnerable than others during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nursing home residents were particularly at risk.

We’re just now beginning to learn precisely how significantly the pandemic impacted nursing home residents. According to a recent report from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), nursing home deaths in the US increased by 32% in 2020.

Unfortunately, it does not appear the problem has been resolved. Nursing home residents continue to die of COVID-19 at an alarming rate. The number of nursing home residents who die of complications related to COVID-19 is nearing 200,000. That would represent a third of all COVID-19 deaths in the country.

That said, steps are being taken to make improvements. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ response to the report, approximately 80% of nursing home residents have now been vaccinated. Still, we must acknowledge the severity of the pandemic’s impact on nursing home residents.

Important Information From the Report

The report provided a number of details that put the effects of the pandemic into greater perspective. Key takeaways include the following:

  • 40% of Medicare beneficiaries living in nursing homes have been diagnosed with COVID-19
  • Compared to 2019, 169,291 more nursing home residents died in 2020
  • In April 2020, about 1000 more Medicare beneficiaries died every day when compared to 2019

“We knew this was going to be bad, but I don’t think even those of us who work in this area thought it was going to be this bad,” said David Grabowski, a Harvard health policy professor who reviewed the report for the Associated Press.

Grabowski emphasized that these deaths were not inevitable. “These were not individuals who were going to die anyway. We are talking about a really big number of excess deaths.”

Certain factors influenced whether a nursing home resident was more or less likely to die during the pandemic. For example, death rates among Asian-American nursing home residents rose by 10% in 2020. That’s the sharpest increase among all racial categories.

Income also played a role in death rates. Approximately 56% of low-income nursing home residents were diagnosed with the virus. Of those residents, about half died.

Nursing Home Resident Deaths: Essential Factors

Few would be surprised to learn that nursing home residents died at much greater rates than most other groups during the pandemic. It’s been understood since the early days of the pandemic that the virus tends to kill older adults much more often than younger people.

That said, it’s interesting that health experts are surprised by just how sharply nursing home resident death rates increased. The fact that COVID-19 is more dangerous for older people is likely not the only factor explaining this alarming trend.

For instance, nursing home abuse and nursing home neglect were problems long before the pandemic. There’s reason to believe the pandemic made these problems significantly worse.

Some believed this was due to nursing home staffing shortages during the pandemic. It was suggested that nursing homes were losing staff at a rate that made it impossible for them to adequately care for their residents. However, these arguments were based on anecdotal reports. Early research now suggests the pandemic did not result in substantial changes in nursing home staffing.

That said, it may have negatively impacted the degree of care nursing home residents received. Having to tend to the needs of many more ill people than usual could have resulted in nursing home staff members neglecting their residents. The stress of the pandemic may have also played a role, although it does not excuse neglect.

It’s important that more research be conducted into why nursing home resident death rates increased to such a degree in 2020. Governments and regulatory agencies must understand what went wrong in order to prevent future crises. This may involve taking additional action to guard against nursing home abuse and neglect.

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