Greenwich Time Op-Ed: COVID strategy failing nursing homes
On March 10, Gov. Ned Lamont, with full support from legislators, declared a state of emergency. By March 18, schools and all non-essential services had been closed. At that time, we had a few confirmed cases and no deaths. Today, after six weeks of shutdowns, social distancing, and 32 executive orders constraining all aspects of life, Connecticut reports roughly 500 new COVID-19 cases and 100 COVID-19 deaths each day. Although I am an elected state representative, I have no say in any of these orders which are impacting residents in my community. There is some degree of desensitization to the daily lives being lost. I humbly ask a question — is it possible that our strategy is misplaced and we need a change of course?
There are three elements which need to be addressed immediately. First, we need to stop the loss of lives in our nursing homes and our senior population. Second, we need to evolve our containment strategy and have a transparent reopen process. Finally, we need to make sure that during this national emergency, we continue to respect democracy and not trample upon our sacrosanct value.
Today, our highest priority requires a focus on our elderly, vulnerable population. The situation at nursing homes and assisted living facilities is severe. The 221 nursing homes in Connecticut have approximately 22,000 residents and have lost more than 3 percent of their residents as a result of COVID-19. We need to act firmly to prevent a catastrophe. In our current strategy, we have prioritized social distancing in our overall population and not done enough to protect our most vulnerable population — seniors in our nursing homes. The only executive order has been to prevent seniors from having visitors.
I ask our administration for a war footing response immediately to stop the loss of lives: First, prioritize availability of testing for impacted nursing homes and their staff. Every resident, visitor and worker in a nursing home needs to be tested 100%, no exceptions. Second, we need to provide the highest-grade PPE - N95 masks, gowns and gloves in large quantities to all nursing homes and senior facilities. Third, we need to provide immediate “substantial hazard pay” to all nursing home workers via Medicaid — these facilities cannot retain employees at $12/ hour. Finally, we have to move COVID-19 positive patients into separate facilities when possible. The state has created two surge facilities in Sharon and Bridgeport, but this is not enough. We may need to help setup special facilities like those in New York City (the Javits Center) with the help of the federal government.
Our containment strategy needs to evolve with an objective to ensure the fewest number of deaths and a health care system which is not overwhelmed. The governor has entrusted a 47-member Reopen Connecticut task force led by an ex-Pepsi CEO which will work behind closed doors. He has locked out all representatives out of this discussion. The timeline being provided by the task force is weeks and months. This strategy is unacceptable. Rather, our strategy should be to quarantine the hotspots and vulnerable populations. Had we, on March 15, quarantined anyone who came from New York, we would have done better. Going forward, I suggest our containment strategy should be by county or perhaps even more granular by town based on objective criteria. A town of 40,000 with 30 cases (less than 0.1 percent) in eastern Connecticut has the same restrictions today as Stamford, where 5 percent of the population is infected. Research from Sweden and other countries is showing that moderate rather than absolute social distancing among a healthy population is a better strategy.
It has become clear that this pandemic will take a few months, if not more, to subside. During these difficult times, we need to ensure liberty, freedom and democracy. These are not only values for normal times, they are our values for all times. I suggest that all executive orders and appointments should be debated virtually by the legislature. Such debate should be available for our citizens to view. Any action which constrains the freedom should be limited, temporary and should be justified vigorously by town and state administration. Finally, there needs to be more analysis and accountability of decisions being made.
I respect and support our executive leadership and fully appreciate that they are working under uncertainty and difficult circumstances. We are at a pivotal point in this emergency. Success requires we leverage our democratic institutions, not curtail them. Success requires us to be nimble and evolve our plan to reflect the situation on the ground. Success requires a change in strategy.
Harry Arora is a state representative in Greenwich’s 151st district.