YESTERDAY’S announcement of measures to bolster the manpower available to regulate elderly care homes reflects the pressing need for the State to maintain its attentiveness to this vulnerable sector, even as the working population eases back to work. The recruitment of 50 additional bodies to bolster the complement of public health inspectors will help the capacity of the Ministry of Health to assist and advise facilities housing the elderly. But it cannot be the last word.
From Madrid to New York, appalling stories have emerged of care homes being ravaged by this disease. In Sweden, such deaths account for 90 per cent of the overall death toll. In Canada, 81 per cent; the US, 50 per cent; Belgium, 50 per cent; the UK 40 per cent; France 33 per cent; Spain 33 per cent. And these estimates, according to statisticians, are likely to be conservative.
Not only have elderly care homes already suffered most, but also the situation is getting worse. While there has been a gradual fall in hospital deaths the reverse is true in these homes.
By late March, the US covid19 outbreak was centred around one, the Life Care Centre of Kirkland in King County, Washington, where 75 per cent of residents fell ill and 40 people died. In Spain, the army found homes filled with dead elderly people who had been abandoned. By April’s end, care home deaths doubled in the UK. Yesterday, the British media reported a fresh outbreak in nursing homes in west London, a full two months after the area was first a hotspot.
The elderly are not out of the woods. Far from it.
There are several reasons why care homes continue to be more vulnerable. Covid19 does not discriminate, but it is clear people over the age of 70 are at higher risk. Also, the elderly are likely to have difficulty complying with social distancing requirements given mobility issues and reliance on nursing staff. Additionally, staff are not likely to live on-site, meaning they are ready conduits for transmission of the disease.
Considering that there are at least four dozen care homes in this country, these factors present a significant challenge to local authorities, requiring robust and sustained intervention. Otherwise, we could have a catastrophe on our hands.
The State has proven itself aware of the risks. It has introduced random testing in nursing homes, allocated personal protective equipment, liaised with the TT Residential Care Association, and issued guidelines to the public on the elderly. Yesterday, authorities also appealed for a common-sense approach to social distancing at workplaces.
However, the risks are so attenuated, it is advisable for the State to sharpen its focus. With so many questions about testing, there needs to be a statistical analysis of data from these homes and the allocation of targeted support.