Guest Columnist

Iowa's senior care workers need our support

A public health worker walks to retrieve supplies from his car while working at a coronavirus testing site at the Toledo
A public health worker walks to retrieve supplies from his car while working at a coronavirus testing site at the Toledo Juvenile Home in Toledo on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The Iowa Department of Public Health, the Iowa Department of Human Services and the Iowa National Guard opened a temporary testing site to test long-term care facility staff in Tama County. They anticipated testing over 350 individuals. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

COVID-19 is a brutal villain, infecting millions and taking more than 185,000 lives worldwide, just over 100 of which were Iowans at the time of this writing. In the face of this, Iowans are showing the strength of their character. Individual acts of courage have become everyday occurrences. Nowhere is this truer than in our state’s long-term care centers.

The threat facing those in long-term care is unprecedented. Because many who are infected remain asymptomatic, efforts to prevent the virus from being introduced into facilities has proved difficult. Once the virus is introduced, it is hard to impede its spread — and virtually impossible without enhanced testing capabilities and more personal protective equipment (PPE) than we have access to today.

Long-term care providers have taken unprecedented steps to protect their residents, including prohibiting non-essential visitors in early March. Unfortunately, even with these measures and following guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health officials, more than 3,600 long-term care facilities nationwide have been impacted by the virus, including 13 in Iowa.

Yet, in the face of this challenge, our long-term care workers are performing with a valor we have not seen during peacetime in a generation; maybe two.

While many of us are hunkered down in our homes teleworking and spending time with our families, these caregivers are leaving their families to provide care for the loved ones of others. What these caregivers are doing and what they are sacrificing is remarkable. We owe them our gratitude, and we owe them our best efforts to address their critical needs.

Adequate PPE and routine testing for long-term care are paramount. While there has been significant attention paid to providing hospitals with PPE, it is imperative we not overlook those working in long-term care.

More than 70% of long-term care facilities nationwide report they lack enough PPE. This not only puts our caregivers at risk, it also puts the people they care for at greater risk. Preventing the introduction of the virus and containing its spread in nursing homes and assisted living facilities is one of the most important things we must do to relieve pressure on hospitals now.

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Testing is a critical area where more support is needed. There are protocols in place to limit the spread of the virus once it is in a facility, including establishing isolation wings where those who have the virus are kept apart from the rest of the residents and are cared for by staff who do not interact with those in the rest of the building. But the virus leaves many of those infected without symptoms, these steps cannot be effectively implemented without broader testing.

We applaud Gov. Kim Reynolds’ recent action to broaden testing for some of Iowa’s long-term care staff. Equally important is the plan to address potential staff shortages which may result from expanded testing. Since a test result only captures an individual’s infection status for a fixed period of time, long-term care staff and residents must be prioritized at the highest level to receive ongoing testing to effectively identify infections and respond as early as possible.

Those one the front lines of this fight need the tools to confront, contain and ultimately defeat the virus. There is reason to be hopeful. Even though residents of long-term care are particularly at risk, most recover from the virus. Caregivers can do even more amazing work if we get them the tools they need: protective equipment, testing and staffing.

It is time to rally around our long-term care residents and staff, and give them the support they need and deserve.

Brent Willett is president and CEO of the Iowa Health Care Association.

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