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After Uproar, California Refines Order For Nursing Homes To Take In People With Virus

Dr. Karl Steinberg, who is a nursing home and hospice medical director in Nor...

Photo by Dr. Karl Steinberg

Above: Dr. Karl Steinberg, who is a nursing home and hospice medical director in North County, called the California Department of Public Health's new order clarifying when nursing homes should accept COVID-19 patients, a step in the right direction, April 2, 2020.

After rebukes from doctors and advocates for elderly people, the California Department of Public Health refined a sweeping order that had required nursing homes to accept residents recovering from or suspected of having COVID-19.

A new state order now says nursing homes can be expected to accept these residents only if certain conditions are met.

A local health department has to be consulted. The nursing home must have adequate personal protective equipment and be equipped to follow federal infection prevention and control rules, the new order states. Also, officials now say patients who were suspected of having the virus but tested negative can be transferred to nursing homes.

The original order, which was issued Monday, did not have these specific requirements. It simply directed nursing homes to accept people suspected or diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, while taking “appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of the infection.”

Doctors and advocates for people living in nursing homes denounced the original order as reckless.

“Sacrificing the lives of beloved nursing home residents is beyond unconscionable,” said Patricia McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. “California’s directive is nothing less than a death sentence for countless residents.”

The more detailed policy was welcomed by advocates and physicians who work at the state’s 1,500 nursing homes.

“My colleagues and I are thrilled to see that the California Department of Public health decided last night to back off that blanket mandate that said we had to take COVID positive patients no matter what,” said Dr. Karl Steinberg, a nursing home and hospice medical director in North San Diego County. “I think it’s really a step in the right direction.”

RELATED: Coronavirus Enters San Diego's Senior Care Facilities

Reported by Amita Sharma

COVID-19 is particularly hard on the elderly and sick. For weeks, the state has warned about the lethal threat COVID-19 posed to nursing homes.

The death rate is between 10% and 27% for people 85 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is as high as 11% for those between 65 and 84.

A coronavirus outbreak at the Life Care Center nursing home in Washington state is linked to 37 deaths. And there have been hundreds of COVID-19 cases at nursing homes and senior care residential communities across the country, including more than 30 in San Diego County.

Meanwhile, a new survey by McKnight’s Long-Term Care News found that nursing homes across the country are already understaffed and under-equipped as they grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the nursing homes that responded to the poll, 77% said they don’t have enough personal protective supplies, such as masks, gowns, gloves and shoe covers.

This equipment is considered crucial to controlling infections and shielding frontline medical care workers.

Nearly 60% of nursing homes said they were forced to use homemade gear or reuse the items.

Almost half of the nursing homes also said they had employees who had called in sick because of COVID-19 symptoms.

Listen to this story by Amita Sharma.

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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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