Chris Brown, a nursing home worker for the past decade, said there was such a shortage of personal protective equipment at his Illinois facility that he had to don a garbage bag for protection while treating patients.
"If I become sick, how can I take care of someone else?" Brown, a certified nursing assistant, asked during a federal briefing by the U.S. House of Representatives' Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.
Preliminary CMS data show there have been more than 95,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, another 58,000 suspected cases and nearly 32,000 deaths in the 88% — or 13,600 facilities — of the nation's Medicare and Medicaid nursing homes that had reported information as of May 31.
Brown still has not been tested for the virus and has moved out of his house out of fear of inadvertently infecting his family. At work, he faces the challenge of caring for patients, while still trying to protect them without adequate PPE.
"Nursing home workers across the country say their residents are not adequately protected from COVID-19," said Brown, a member of the Service Employees International Union.
Two weeks after the first COVID-19 cases — and deaths — were confirmed at Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., CMS issued guidance on March 13 restricting all visitors to nursing homes and requiring that all staff and residents be screened for symptoms. Thirty-five Life Care residents have died due to COVID-19.
CMS also has issued guidance on PPE and testing but has largely left it up to states and nursing homes to secure those resources and comply with regulations. Officials have said nursing homes should be among the "last to reopen" from COVID-19 restrictions.
Subcommittee members debated the reasons for the high numbers of COVID-19-related deaths in nursing homes, the lack of PPE and the staffing problems facilities face. Along party lines, representatives disagreed on whether the crisis was exacerbated by lack of resources and coordination from the federal government or by states' responses to the pandemic. But they agreed that action needs to be taken to protect residents and staff in nursing homes.
"We have seen far too much suffering in nursing homes during this crisis. It is time for us to come together and provide solutions to bring this tragedy to an end," said Chairman Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC). "We need to get beyond partisan politics…This is about doing what's necessary to protect Americans."
Clyburn recommended that the federal government ensure nursing homes have enough PPE and resources; provide oversight on infection control and staffing levels at nursing homes; and make sure essential workers in those facilities have fair pay, paid leave and adequate testing.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said the committee should demand that states that haven't shared full information to submit it so that lawmakers can make informed decisions.
"Our jobs should be to find out as much as we can about how the money is being spent," Scalise said.
CMS first started requiring nursing homes to submit information on COVID-19 cases and related deaths last month in order to provide standardized information on nursing homes across the country. New data will be shared next week, and then the releases will become weekly. Demographic information is not being collected.