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Q&A: How Ohio Nursing Homes Are Preparing For Coronavirus

There are currently no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Ohio, but health officials are preparing for a possible outbreak in the state. Nursing homes, with large senior populations, will likely be ground zero, based on what has happened in other states.

ideastream's Marlene Harris-Taylor joined All Things Considered Host Tony Ganzer to talk about how nursing homes are preparing to protect people who may be vulnerable to falling seriously ill from the virus.

What are some of the issues that nursing homes are grappling with as they prepare for the worst?

One problem that nursing homes and even hospitals are facing is a shortage of the protective gear that health workers will need to stay safe as they treat patients.

Peter Van Runkle is executive director of the Ohio Health Care Association, a group that represents 650 nursing homes across the state, and also some businesses which supply protective gear for health workers.

Ohio suppliers are not able to get enough supply out of China to meet the current demand, Van Runkle said. In addition, some nursing homes are trying to hoard supplies by ordering more than they really need right now, he said.

“That sort of hoarding behavior is something that our suppliers are saying ‘hey we can’t have that,' so what they are doing is restricting what people can purchase. Basically you could call it rationing,” Van Runkle said.

I spoke with him by phone from an airport as he was headed back to Ohio from a conference for health care associations. Coronavirus response was all the talk in hallways, he said because the information is evolving every day.

What about the nursing homes here in Northeast Ohio? What are they doing to prepare? For example, are they thinking of restricting visitors who could potentially bring the virus to the facility?

I spoke with officials at one of the largest nursing home and rehab facilities in the area, Menorah Park in Beachwood. There are about 800 seniors on the campus. Menorah also provides outpatient services to seniors in their homes. Lori Lozier, associate administrator at Menorah Park, said restricting visitors would be the last resort.

“But you still have to prepare for 'what if?'. What if suddenly we had X number of patients here? Would we consider cohorting all the patients with that particular illness in one spot? Maybe, maybe not, depends,” Lozier said.

“What nursing homes are about is about living and having fun, quality of life. The last thing you want to do is restrict people from going out and doing the things they want to do. So for us, that becomes a last resort," she said.

Menorah Park officials said they are going over their preparedness plans and getting daily updates from state and federal officials. They are treating this like getting ready for the flu or any other infectious disease.

Van Runkle, however, said there is a great deal of concern and nervousness in the nursing home community and people are wondering if they are really prepared

“Given that this is a novel virus, maybe there’s different things that need to be done,” he said.

“Until there is a conclusive 'OK we’ve got this cornered,' there’s always going to be something in the back of your mind that’s like, 'is this enough?'” Van Runkle said.

Hasn’t keeping infections from spreading always been an issue in nursing homes, even before the coronavirus?

Yes. There are all these elderly people together in one place. Some are sick.  It’s important that workers do basic things like washing their hands thoroughly as they go from room to room. According to an analysis of federal health inspection records of nursing homes by Kaiser Health News, citations for workers not following common safety protocols are very common. When Kaiser examined the data, even among nursing homes that generally get high marks, nationally some 4 out of 10 have been cited for infection control lapses since 2017.



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