Gov. Kevin Stitt's failure to follow through on his commitment of "providing support to residents and staff" at Oklahoma's nursing homes and long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic had a "profound and devastating impact" that continues today.
Three months ago, after testing nearly 36,000 residents and staff at 265 nursing homes as part of an ambitious three-phase plan to re-open the state, he announced with much fanfare a commitment to provide "regular COVID-19 testing." The governor also touted the state's efforts to provide personal protective equipment to prevent the "further loss of life" and made a commitment to stand "in the gap where basic services are unavailable or out of reach."
Stitt made that pledge with the aim of keeping "staff and residents safe and healthy," a laudable goal we would applaud had he not taken his eyes off the prize. Since his June 2 remarks, nursing homes and long-term care facilities have continued to experience a disproportionate impact from COVID-19, which has claimed 821 Oklahoma lives as of Wednesday — about 42% resided in a nursing home or long-term care facility.
Supplying and staffing long-term care facilities have become more difficult — and much costlier — as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to climb across much of Oklahoma.
Mary Brinkley, executive director of the advocacy organization LeadingAge Oklahoma, told state leaders during a recent hearing at the Capitol that nursing homes now spend in a month what they used to spend in a year for protective gear if they can even get it. Staff retention also remains a problem for an industry that, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project, provides care for less than 1% of the nation's population but accounts for 42% of the nation's COVID-19 deaths.
While mass testing undertaken in May was done with plans to resume limited visitation in June, patient and facility advocates say residents remain isolated due to policies that bar visitation. Extended isolation of patients prevents advocates and social workers from investigating hundreds of complaints that remain unresolved and deteriorates the mental health of patients.
The distribution of rapid testing machines this month to nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities should help minimize transmission of this highly contagious disease going forward. The program, a mandate by a federal government that has been slow to provide a unified response to this pandemic, will enable facilities to identify asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus — independent research shows employees unwittingly bring it in from surrounding communities.
That is a good step forward, but more must be done. Stitt's pledge to fill "the gap where basic services are unavailable" must be fulfilled, and if the federal government won't bail him out and provide the PPE required to "keep staff and residents safe and healthy," the state should tap the $1.2 billion of CARES Act funding to ensure that gear is made available where it is needed.
The COVID-19 pandemic remains a public health crisis. If state leaders prioritize the health and safety of all Oklahomans as the guiding principle of all policy decisions, the remaining puzzle pieces will fall into place.