As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the United States, nursing homes and other assisted living facilities have found themselves on the front lines. While the over 153,000 cases found within nursing homes account for only 11% of the cases in the country, the 28,000 deaths make up 35% of the total in the US. Admittedly, there are multiple reasons for this disparity, but it can generally be attributed to an already strained nursing home system that has been pushed over the edge by the pandemic. However, what does this mean for cases of neglect within facilities that house one of the most at-risk populations in the country? And what are nursing homes doing to ensure that those in their care are able to live in a safe and healthy environment?
An Already Strained System
Even before the pandemic arrived in the US, nursing homes across the country were suffering from understaffing, which has led to elder abuse and neglect. Now that these same facilities have become coronavirus hotspots, many staff members are calling in sick because they too are being exposed. The unintended consequence of this is that the number of staff on hand at nursing facilities is even more limited. Unfortunately, this is leaving a vulnerable population without the help they desperately need.
This understaffing problem is compounded by the fact that these facilities are the perfect breeding ground for a virus such as COVID-19 due to the compromised immune systems of elderly residents living in close proximity to one another. Understaffing can also lead to surfaces not being disinfected as frequently as they should be. Moreover, some nursing home staff may work at multiple facilities, meaning they could spread the virus to multiple facilities before they know they are a carrier.
What Does Neglect Look Like During a Pandemic?
There are many ways elder neglect can manifest itself, but some are more prevalent in the age of the coronavirus. The majority of these neglect cases are going to be a direct result of the compounded understaffing issue these facilities face. For example, neglect may be more likely to occur if staff do not show up to work due to the unsafe working conditions of the facility caused by the risk and spread of COVID-19. As discussed in more detail below, claims of neglect cannot be brought against individual employees during the pandemic. However, the facility itself could still be liable for creating an environment that results in the neglect of residents.
The failure to seek medical attention for a resident who needs it is another form of neglect we could see increasingly given COVID-related understaffing. Residents may need medical attention after contracting the coronavirus, or simply for other health-related reasons. But if staff are overworked and spread too thin, those in need may not receive the medical attention they need in a timely fashion.
Less obvious forms of neglect may be the failure to notify family members of a change in a resident’s condition or the failure of staff to keep records of incidents that occur. During the pandemic, there have been accounts of facilities failing to disclose that an outbreak has occurred within their facility, or failing to notify the family members of individuals who have become infected. For some families, the first they heard about an outbreak within the facility came only after their loved one had passed. And if records of incidents within the facility are not being kept, it may be nearly impossible for families to determine what went wrong, if anyone is responsible, and what preventative measures need to be taken in the future.
Potential Legal Immunity for Nursing Homes
In response to the increased risk of liability in neglect cases, nursing homes across the country have sought legal immunity for the duration of the pandemic. This attempt at legal immunity is not unprecedented, as a couple of states have granted similar protections to doctors and nurses on the front lines of the pandemic. In Pennsylvania, nursing home facilities have not been granted immunity but practitioners have been granted some limited immunity. This means that while individuals may not be able to bring claims of negligence against individual employees, they may still bring claims against their employer.
While the nursing home industry and its supporters claim that granting these facilities legal immunity will allow them to focus on their jobs rather than worrying about lawsuits, the fact is that there is no justification for the facilities themselves to have immunity. For example, a doctor may need immunity due to triage practices or because they want to be able to test out new treatments. Nursing homes simply do not have to, and should not, be making those kinds of decisions, so they do not need immunity.
Further, 70% of nursing homes in the US are run by for-profit companies. If companies such as these are granted immunity from legal action in response to cases of neglect, what is their incentive to help those in their care? If they choose to prioritize money over lives, then there would be no legal ramifications and no remedy for helpless victims. The legal system is not only a way for those who have been harmed to seek compensation. It also acts as a deterrent so injustices like elder neglect do not happen in the first place.
Cases of elder neglect may rise within nursing homes due to the coronavirus pandemic. There is no one factor that is responsible for this development. It is instead the result of an already strained system that has now been pushed over the edge. While neglect, unfortunately, happened within these facilities before the pandemic, we may now see instances of neglect manifest for new reasons, such as practitioners, concerned for their own safety, refusing to show up to a workplace that has become an outbreak hotspot. Finally, there are concerns and questions regarding legal immunity that must be considered. But, crucially, nursing home facilities are still able to be held liable for any negligence that happens within their boundaries.
Sacchetta & Baldino Trial Lawyers
If you suspect that someone you love has been a victim of elder abuse while in a nursing home, you are not out of options just because of the current pandemic. Our lawyers are just a call away. Please contact us today for a free consultation about your case and how we can put our decades of legal experience to work for you and your loved one.