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Pennsylvania can’t fight the nursing home crisis alone

COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire through the nation’s nursing homes. Already, more than 56,000 residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities — including over 4,800 in Pennsylvania — have died from COVID-19. They account for more than 44 percent of U.S. coronavirus deaths, even though less than one percent of Americans live in nursing homes. This is a national disgrace.

To date, Congress has passed four bills to address the devastating impact of coronavirus on Americans. Yet, these bills barely touch on the crisis raging in long-term care facilities. What will it take for Congress to take meaningful action to protect nursing home residents?

For five months, nursing homes have been a hotbed for the virus — yet basic precautions to protect residents and staff are still not in place. AARP has heard gut-wrenching accounts from thousands of family members worried about their loved ones in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

It’s time for lawmakers to come together to pass a bipartisan COVID-19 response package with dedicated funding and five key policies to protect seniors living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities:

• Ensure regular, ongoing testing and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

• Create transparency focused on daily, public reporting of cases and deaths in facilities, communication with families when loved ones are discharged or transferred, and accountability for how billions of dollars in federal funding is spent.

• Require access to facilitated virtual visitation.

• Provide better care for residents through adequate staffing, oversight, and access to in-person formal advocates, called long-term care ombudsmen.

• Stop attempts to provide blanket immunity for long-term care facilities related to COVID-19.

The hopeful news is that legislation has been introduced in Congress that will help save the lives of nursing home residents. However, what remains missing is the will to make these older Americans and their families a priority. Our elected leaders must act now to protect Pennsylvania’s long-term care residents and staff before the death toll rises even higher. It is literally life or death.

Bill Johnston-Walsh is the State Director of AARP Pennsylvania.

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