TIME

Elder care grows up

FOR THE AMERICAN PUBLIC, ONE OF THE FIRST SIGNS OF THE COVID-19 pandemic to come was a tragedy at a nursing home near Seattle. On Feb. 29, 2020, officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Washington State announced the U.S. had its first outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Three people in the area had tested positive the day before; two of them were associated with Life Care Center of Kirkland, and officials expected more to follow soon. When asked what steps the nursing home could take to control the spread, Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Seattle and King County, said he was working with the CDC to provide guidance, “but,” he acknowledged, “it is a very challenging environment, particularly with so many vulnerable patients, to manage an outbreak.”

It turned out the virus had already been circulating among Life Care’s residents for weeks by the time administrators took action, and soon it was tearing through the facility. By March 5, at least nine residents had already died of COVID-19, and a group of families whose loved ones were still inside held a desperate press conference. “Our families are dying. We don’t know what to do. Our calls for help aren’t working,” Kevin Connolly, whose father-in-law lived in the facility, told reporters. “We have limited resources to battle this disease, and I think somebody somewhere decided that this population of people wasn’t worth wasting resources on.”

Many long-term-care experts would say Connolly was right. The pace at which that first U.S. coronavirus outbreak spread through Life Care, killing dozens of residents in weeks, shocked the public. But for those familiar with long-term care, it wasn’t surprising. “We really failed in a lot of ways, historically but also during this pandemic, to value older adults,” says David Grabowski, a professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on long-term care. That is to say, the U.S. health care system basically left its nursing-home residents as sitting ducks for a viral pandemic like

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