Nearly every community has suffered during the recent COVID-19 health crisis. But some people have suffered more than others, and many of our most vulnerable populations have faced the greatest adversity.

In the United States, as of the first week of January 2021, over 540,000 nursing home residents had already contracted the coronavirus. With nursing home facilities accounting for a high percentage of COVID-related deaths, this data is truly alarming. It’s evidence that healthcare executives must do better to protect their patients now, and to ensure these statistics don’t happen again in the event of future crises. 

For this to happen, we need to understand why the pandemic overwhelmed long-term skilled nursing facilities, and develop ways to prevent this damage in the future. Following is a review of the root cause of some of these problems, along with suggestions for potential future solutions.

Facility Design

One crucial facet of long-term nursing facilities is to help reduce the cost of caring for chronically ill patients. In pursuit of this cost-reduction goal, overcrowding can occur. Some facilities have space for private rooms, but others house several people in one room. More crowding means increased chances for infections to travel from person to person. Investing in new construction and expanding existing facilities may prevent the spread of disease and help residents’ physical and emotional health.

Inadequate Professional Staffing

An identified gap in nursing home staffing is the lack of professional nursing personnel. Registered nurses know what to do and how to do it. They determine infection control protocol and other healthcare standards. Having more qualified RNs on staff rather than just care assistants has proven vital at these facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies found that at 215 nursing homes throughout Connecticut, a higher number of RNs was associated with a 22 percent reduction in COVID cases.

But it isn’t just a numbers game. The physicians who currently attend to patients in skilled nursing facilities are typically family practitioners with no special training in geriatrics. In order to best meet the needs of older residents, nursing home centers must either stop hiring primary care physicians and focus their efforts on finding qualified geriatricians, or they need to prioritize geriatric training in their existing staff. The more specialized training a health professional has, the better able they are to care for their elderly patients. 

This won’t only benefit SNFs during a pandemic, but will also enhance the quality of care their residents receive on an ongoing basis. 

Healthcare Staff Support

Caring for patients who are seriously ill or dying takes an enormous mental, physical, and emotional toll on caregivers. Healthcare workers providing care to COVID-19 patients report feeling significant symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia. These concerns, along with fears for personal safety, can lead to increased absenteeism in skilled nursing facilities. Nursing assistants and aides are some of the lowest-paid healthcare workers. Due to low wages and part-time hours, many nursing assistants need to work a second job, possibly in another healthcare facility. Cross-contamination happens easily in this type of situation. By prioritizing fair pay, training opportunities, and regular work schedules, healthcare staff will be able to prioritize their time at their main place of work, while also preserving their mental and emotional well-being.

Specialized Education

Government regulations are less stringent in nursing homes and long-term care facilities than in traditional hospitals. Often, nursing home staff receive no specialized training in infection control, specialized topics related to long-term care, or the use of PPE (Personalized Protective Equipment). Providing dedicated training on these topics will both help skilled nursing facilities respond to future crises and influence the quality of care of patients. Healthcare is an industry that is never stagnant, so ongoing, specialized education should be a priority across every organization. 

Technology Inclusion

Technology can be an immense aid in the future of preventing pandemics. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have used machine learning algorithms to sift through large amounts of data when searching for global virus hotspots. Researchers also used artificial intelligence to analyze news reports and track patterns that were used to inform their own operations. But one of technology’s most crucial roles in the healthcare sector was allowing residents to interact with the outside world when visitors weren’t allowed into their facilities. Senior isolation is known to be both a mental and physical detriment, so technology has proven to be an instrumental tool in keeping residents connected while also preserving their will to live. 

Supply Chain Imbalance

The sudden enormous demand for medical supplies including masks, gowns, gloves, and PPEs overwhelmed the medical supply chain. However, the surge in demand meant manufacturers produced more ventilators and other medical equipment. This excess supply is currently being held for future needs. This sudden demand also led to increased business innovation. From alternative ways to develop vaccines to vending machines for face masks and hand sanitizer, these innovations will benefit healthcare for years to come.

Prepare for Future Epidemics

A major factor in the rapid spread of COVID-19 in care facilities was the lack of regulation and official guides for disaster procedures. Subsequently, organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have prepared new and relevant guidelines, like increased testing on residents and staff, establishing COVID-19 care units, and increased reporting requirements. Increases in public health expenditures are necessary to meet these additional reporting requirements. Also, in the future, early warning systems will be crucial to alerting scientists, health organizations, and the government to potential pandemic outbreaks.

COVID-19 exposed vulnerabilities in healthcare systems, private and public businesses, and governments alike. While the pandemic has been nothing short of dire, it’s brought about new products and process innovations and has prioritized collaboration with research and data sharing. These fresh ways of responding to a crisis will help care facilities and others learn to reduce negative pandemic impacts in the future.