The Coronavirus Exposes Inadequate Elder Care

By Casey Johnson

Over twenty-five years ago, California was a national leader in passing legislation to protect the elderly and dependent adults living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities/residential care facilities for the elderly.

Despite California’s commitment to preventing physical abuse of the elderly, nursing homes and senior living facilities throughout the state have been repeatedly cited by state investigators and sued for providing inadequate care to the most vulnerable members of our community, oftentimes resulting in injuries and death.

In our current surreal situation, one of the first well-publicized outbreaks of coronavirus in the United States was in Washington state at the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. Over 35 residents died, over 80 residents contracted coronavirus as did 47 employees.

Obviously, residents at such a facility tend to be older, and by definition fall within high risk of serious infection or death due to their age and co-morbidities. However, the mere fact of their age is not the only thing that made residents at such a facility susceptible to contracting the virus in the first instance.

Unfortunately, California nursing homes have also seen significant outbreaks of coronavirus. Orinda Care Center (27 residents infected), Cedar Mountain Post Acute Rehabilitation in Yucaipa (57 residents infected), Stellar Care Memory Care Center in San Diego (4 residents and 2 employees infected).

Photo by Sam Wheeler

As of Friday, April 3, 2020, the Department of Public Health was investigating 321 cases of coronavirus among staff and residents of 67 facilities. These numbers will only rise.

So what is really happening at nursing homes and senior living facilities? For years, nursing homes and senior living facilities have begun to increasingly cut corners to put profits over people. The effects of these shortcuts are magnified during a time of health crisis, such as that we currently face.

Nursing home operators (primarily large, statewide or national corporations) have increasingly staffed lower level caretakers while sacrificing those with more training and experience. This is true even in facilities with particularly sick residents.

At a quick glance it appears that there are plenty of employees to provide care for residents, when in fact, there is an insufficient number of highly trained staff members able to assess residents and identify when issues are occurring (Registered Nurses, RNs).

As a result, changes in residents’ conditions that would be noticed by an RN are oftentimes unnoticed by Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) or Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs). And some facilities staff only one Registered Nurse, during one shift a day, for 100 residents or more.

It’s cheaper to pay a CNA or even an LVN for a shift, so operators make it look like there are plenty of employees, when there is actually an insufficient number of adequately trained employees.

This callous business decision has resulted in countless deaths in nursing homes across California, and throughout the nation. And the need for adequately trained employees is never greater than during a health crisis such as the coronavirus. Thus, while residents are normally exposed to unnecessary danger due to inadequate staffing, that risk is further magnified when registered nursing level care is especially needed.

Aitken*Aitken*Cohn continues to represent elderly residents of nursing homes and their families and hopes that the unnecessary loss of life at nursing homes and assisted living centers during the coronavirus outbreak will shine a brighter light on the longstanding and callous practice of intentional understaffing so that California’s elders can receive the care and assistance they are entitled to and deserve.

Operators must be held accountable for continuing to make decisions solely based on profits at the cost of elderly lives. Although heartbreaking, the coronavirus outbreaks at nursing homes and assisted living centers are the unfortunate and preventable consequence of corporations prioritizing profit over lives.

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