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Column: AARP Hawaii calls on governor to do more for those in long-term care homes

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Until recently, Hawaii’s nursing homes, assisted-living and community care homes have been mostly safe from COVID-19. But now, outbreaks of the virus, and related deaths, in these homes are on the rise, and Gov. David Ige’s administration must take immediate action to save lives.

Nationally, more than 76,000 residents and staff in long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19. So far, we know of at least 16 long-term care deaths in Hawaii: 10 at a state veterans home in Hilo, five in community care homes and one in an unnamed facility. There could be many more, but the state has not released new information on long-term care facility cases since Aug. 18, and Hawaii is not regularly testing residents and staff in all facilities. We are blind about how widespread the disease is among long-term care residents and staff.

As the virus has spread in the community, so have outbreaks in long-term care facilities, and we know from experience on the mainland and the recent outbreak at the Hilo veterans home that the number of outbreaks and deaths can rise rapidly.

While the federal government has taken some important steps, the death toll continues to rise and more must be done. Gov. Ige has a responsibility to act and save lives before it’s too late to protect our kupuna. AARP Hawaii urges the state to:

>> Improve transparency focused on daily, public reporting of cases and deaths in facilities; communication with families about discharges and transfers; and accountability for state and federal funding that goes to facilities.

>> Prioritize regular and ongoing testing and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for nursing home, assisted living and community care home residents and staff — as well as inspectors and any visitors.

>> Ensure quality care for residents through adequate staffing, oversight and access to in-person ombudsmen.

>> Establish “strike teams” to respond to outbreaks in long-term care facilities.

>> Require access to virtual visitation and establish timelines, milestones and accountability for facilities to safely begin in-person visitation.

Transparency and testing are the most pressing concerns. We urge the state to publicly release the names of nursing homes and other residential care facilities with confirmed COVID-19 cases. Transparency is critical for public health and the well-being of facilities’ residents and staff.

Even six months into the pandemic, prioritized and ongoing testing, plus adequate PPE, are needed.

Additionally, Ige needs to ensure adequate staffing for residents. The state needs a plan to respond to COVID-19 in long-term care facilities, which should cover a worst-case scenario of multiple outbreaks in nursing homes and community care homes. As an element, we urge the state to consider following the example of states like Maryland, Florida and Indiana to establish “strike teams” that can focus on facilities in urgent need of testing, training, sanitation and other assistance.

For the many long-term care home residents who haven’t seen their loved ones since March, care homes must be required to facilitate virtual visits. When the time is right to begin in-person visits again, facilities need established timelines and accountability to keep residents and staff safe.

Finally, while Hawaii’s nursing homes have received millions of federal dollars for testing, PPE and other costs, most kupuna here in long-term care reside in assisted-living and small community care homes that have not gotten the same attention from the federal government. The primary responsibility to provide for these community-based facilities falls to the state, and Hawaii is not doing enough to save lives.

As long as there is community spread of COVID-19, all long-term care facilities will need regular testing, transparency and additional help. Our leaders in Washington have lacked the political will to protect long-term care home residents. Hawaii cannot continue to do the same. It’s past time for Gov. Ige to take aggressive action and make protecting kupuna a priority.

Keali‘i Lopez is the state director of AARP Hawaii, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization dedicated to empowering Americans 50 and older.

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