: Is someone you love in a nursing home? 4 ways to ensure their safety as COVID-19 cases spike

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Coronavirus case numbers have jumped in recent weeks across the country, highlighting dangers for a high-risk population: people who live in nursing homes. 

The sick and the elderly are some of the most vulnerable members of the population, and many reside in nursing homes, making these centers the setting for a potential nightmare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said since the beginning of the pandemic that those who are older or have underlying health issues are most at risk of complications, or worse, if in contact with the virus. 

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One of the first reported outbreaks of the pandemic in the U.S. occurred at a nursing home in Washington state in February, where dozens of residents died and many others became sick. And as COVID cases see an uptick in the U.S., with some states reaching more than a million cases, so do the figures for nursing homes. There is a correlation between the number of COVID cases at nursing homes and the surrounding areas where they’re located, according to Johns Hopkins University. 

See: Why some nursing homes did better in protecting residents from coronavirus

In the Midwest region, the number of weekly cases at nursing homes has grown more than 400% between mid-September and Nov. 15, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living reported. Around the U.S., the number of weekly cases at nursing homes has jumped 177% during that same timeframe.  The AHCA and NCAL analyzed data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Johns Hopkins.

Source: American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living.

The number of deaths are also beginning to rise as well, the organizations said. 

Source: American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living.

Living in a nursing home during such a stressful time can be dangerous, not just from a medical standpoint, but a mental-health one as well. Many residents may suffer from loneliness or depression, especially if they often had visitors who now have restricted access. The separation and uncertainty has been hard on everyone, including families, who may be stuck at home worrying about their relatives’ wellbeing.  

A CDC advisory committee has recommended health care workers and nursing home staff members be prioritized to receive a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available. In the meantime, here are four ways to help your loved ones in nursing homes — and possibly reduce your own stress about the situation: 

Connect with your loved ones 

Connection is crucial for the wellbeing of older Americans. 

However possible, try to stay in touch with your relatives and friends in nursing homes. If they have a phone, call them up every so often and chat about how they’re feeling and what you’ve been doing. If they don’t have a phone of their own, ask the facility if it’s possible to set up phone calls. Some facilities are even coordinating video chats, so residents can actually see their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Video calls are also a good way to share special moments — be it a regular day at home cooking dinner, a birthday or wedding ceremony, or just a walk in the park, according to AARP

Outside of technology, more people are sending older Americans handwritten cards and letters. One organization takes volunteers’ handmade cards and sends them to nursing homes, and another company was started in the middle of the pandemic to send relatives’ weekly cards with a personalized message. 

Communicate with facility staff 

Contact should also be made with the resident’s doctor, nurse or caretaker — about the care the patient is receiving as well as the facility overall. Relatives should ask specific questions, AARP said, including if anyone in the center has tested positive for COVID-19, what precautions the facility is taking to protect their patients, if the nursing home has protective equipment for staff and/or residents and how the facility will communicate important information to necessary parties. 

Relatives can also check reports on the number of coronavirus cases at specific nursing homes, gathered on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ website

Sanitize and distance yourselves

Know the rules for visiting. Facilities may have their own restrictions in place, but in general, wash your hands thoroughly, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer before, during and after the visit and stay physically distant whenever possible, according to the AHCA and NCAL. “We know this is difficult, but the virus is very contagious and social distancing is important at this time,” the organizations said. 

Some nursing homes may not be allowing visitors at this time either, except for extreme circumstances, AHCA and NCAL said.  

In September, CMS issued updated guidance for visitations. Along with end-of-life situations, the agency suggested allowing visitors to enter a facility for “compassionate care situations,” which include: when a newly admitted resident is struggling with his or her new environment; when a patient is having trouble eating or drinking and thus losing weight or becoming dehydrated; when a resident is grieving the death of someone close; and when a resident is experiencing “emotional distress.” CMS also said nursing homes should allow for outdoor visitations, which may have a lower risk of transmission.  

Also see: 3 reasons there will be a wave of nursing home closures

Create a backup plan 

Some families may be thinking of where their loved ones can live outside of a nursing home during the pandemic — and that includes their own homes. At the height of the pandemic, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it was not the time to bring parents to one of these institutions.

There are alternatives to nursing homes, such as at-home care or community-based services. Some Americans may be comfortable at an assisted living facility or senior center if they do not need constant medical attention.

A few states have also introduced publicly-funded programs for long-term care, including financial assistance to family caregivers and money to go toward accessibility within the home. Now might be the time to have these conversations with nursing home residents and other family members, to determine what is feasible, affordable and safest.

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