AARP Eye Center
Eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, Judy McCray was FaceTiming with her sister Deloris, a Detroit nursing home resident. “I see an employee walk into her room without a mask on,” said McCray, 63, also of Detroit. “Yet I haven’t been allowed an in-person visit with my sister since February.”
The incident sums up McCray’s frustrations about the facility’s inconsistent use of personal protective equipment (PPE), the high turnover of nursing aides, and other factors that expose vulnerable residents to COVID-19, even as they miss out on doctor visits and family time.
With the Michigan Legislature convening this month, AARP will be advocating for nursing home reform. The pandemic has underscored chronic issues such as staffing shortages, low wages and inadequate safety gear.
Despite statewide distancing and lockdown orders, patients in long-term care homes account for nearly one-third of COVID-19-related deaths in Michigan. As of last month, there were more than 3,100 resident deaths.
Michigan has been averaging nearly 64 COVID-19 deaths per 1,000 nursing home residents, according to federal data.
The trend prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) Michigan Nursing Home COVID-19 Preparedness Task Force to issue a report in August urging reform.
AARP supports the task force’s recommendations, such as better distribution of PPE and testing supplies, and state funding for diagnostic labs.
Wage supplements, upgraded training, paid leave and a more appealing career path for certified nursing assistants (CNAs) were also among the task force’s suggestions.
“Workers are the crux of everything when it comes to quality nursing care,” said state Rep. Leslie Love (D-Detroit). “Certified nursing assistants make an average of $11.33 an hour. How do you compete when supermarkets are offering $15?”
Due to economic pressure, Love said, many CNAs work in multiple facilities or moonlight as home care workers, increasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
According to an AARP analysis, Michigan reported 1.5 COVID-19 infections of staff per 100 nursing home residents, with nearly one-third of facilities experiencing a PPE shortage and 35 percent not having enough workers.
As of last month, nearly four dozen nursing home employees had died of the coronavirus.
Other legislative priorities for AARP are more funding for in-home services via the MI Choice Waiver program and expansion of the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE). Promoting a tax credit for family caregivers will also be a goal.
“It’s easier to protect from COVID at home,” said Melissa Seifert, associate state director for AARP Michigan and a member of the governor’s task force. “For the same money spent to keep one person in a nursing facility, you can keep three people at home.”
AARP will continue to push for high-speed-internet expansion, which could help more people accesss telemedicine. It supported passage of a new state law requiring Medicaid to reimburse providers for telehealth services.
“We have seen some wins,” Seifert said. “One major impact of COVID is the opportunity to reevaluate the traditional ways of doing things.”
Melissa Preddy is a writer living in Plymouth.
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