Broken and Beyond Repair: America’s Nursing Home System


Gillian Ryser, Junior Staff Writer

In this past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned America’s nursing homes into a death trap. More than 170,000 residents and staff members have lost their lives due to this crisis, further exposing a system that is broken and dysfunctional. This revelation, however, has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix the issues that left nursing homes vulnerable in the first place, says NBC News. 

John Miller, in an online article in The Jesuit Review explains how this system has been lacking for a long, long time.  He states: “There are 1.4 million Americans living in nursing homes, roughly half of whom are long-term residents paying an average cost around $100,000 a year. This $100 billion-plus sector of the economy, which includes a handful of billion-dollar-plus chains, boasts revenues greater than those of all of America’s professional sports leagues combined. Families routinely liquidate savings to pay for care.” Yet what did America get for all of that money and effort? “An industry that could not keep its customers safe,” writes Miller.  This dilemma highlights a much more serious complication in American society–being capitalists, Americans tend to equate a person’s value with his or her ability to make money and consume goods.  When they no longer have this capability, we tuck them away in a  home to be forgotten.  Care accountability doesn’t always exist; neither do adequate supplies and sanitation.  Thus, Covid-19 found a place in neglected, overcrowded nursing homes; it was the perfect storm.

There are many reasons why residents of nursing homes and the workers who take care of them died of COVID at such high rates. One of these reasons is because they lacked protective gear in the early stages of the pandemic. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed in hospitals, nursing homes, and other places where infections can spread easily. Nursing homes also didn’t have enough COVID tests to identify someone who was possibly asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. Many of the workers who were able to get tested, and were positive, chose to stay at work because they lacked sick leave and could not afford to lose money. Nursing homes were already short staffed, so there was no one able to fill in for those who did choose to take sick leave. 

Infections ran rampant in nursing homes before COVID, for reasons stated above, and this virus only made matters worse. Research shows that nursing homes with higher staffing levels of registered nurses had a lower death rate and did a better job of controlling the spread of COVID. Some nursing homes even began partnering with hospitals in order to receive help with infection control and the use of PPE. This partnership helped prevent major outbreaks that could have swamped the emergency rooms. “Every nursing home should stockpile PPE, not just for this, but for other kinds of contagious events that can happen,” says Patricia McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. 

As COVID swept across the world, nursing home staff ranked among the deadliest jobs in America. The impact on the residents of nursing homes has been well known, but the impact on the workers has been less visible. Hubbard High School junior Delaney Panigall says, “I personally know someone who was working in a nursing home during the pandemic, and the toll it took on her and her family was extreme. She stayed away from her family for months and it was very hard for her.” 

Nursing home staff and residents are going to need to rebuild after this pandemic is over, and it won’t be easy. Health outcomes and experiences for residents will need to be improved. More staff members are needed, as well as higher pay. Americans as a whole need to adjust their attitudes about the relevance and purpose of aging and the aged. There are plenty of ways to avoid another disaster in nursing homes, but  many things will need to change quickly.