Long-term care facilities improve testing, struggle with staffing amid coronavirus pandemic

Posted at 6:41 PM, Dec 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-10 20:41:26-05

Assisted living facilities and skilled nursing facilities were the most affected at the beginning of the pandemic. Dozens of vulnerable, elderly residents were passing away every week following outbreaks.

In the months since though, experts say the industry has made significant improvements. Masks, other PPE and testing are now widely available.

Skilled nursing staff in Maricopa County are getting tested at least twice every week, per federal guidelines.

"We’ve learned immensely," said Dave Voepel, CEO of the Arizona Health care Association. "We’ve taken the last ten months and we’ve learned how this virus really moves around."

While some problems have been solved, others have worsened. Facilities are experiencing a serious staffing shortage, that appears to be getting worse.

According to the most recent data analyzed by AARP, staffing shortages increased by three percent in nursing homes. Currently, 25% of Arizona nursing homes need more employees.

Members of the state's Task Force on Long Term Care tell ABC15 many employees are quitting or calling out due to COVID concerns or burnout.

"It’s a never-ending battle these facilities work through, to get and keep staff," said Voepel, who represents the interests of more than 170 facilities, as an association president.

"These are residents that need a lot of care. So having a facility report that they are short on staff is pretty serious," said Dana Kennedy, AARP AZ State Director. "So that puts a larger strain on people who are able to show up to work."

Employees have been going into the facilities all year. Friends and family have only been allowed back in-person in September.

The visitation by relatives though, has been short-lived at many facilities.

"Many of the facilities are now shutting down to visitors. So, if there’s an outbreak in a facility, they have to be COVID free for 14 days," said Kennedy. "If one staff person or one resident tests positive for COVID within those 14 days, they close down for another 14 days."

The rules, meant to protect residents and their safety, has also led to increased isolation during this holiday season.

"Unfortunately, this surge is hitting at the worst time, during the holidays. And we don’t want to bring COVID back into the building," said Voepel. "So if you do go out for the holiday, you have to come back and be isolated, and tested."

The coronavirus will not be eradicated anytime soon.

"Just because residents and the staff get tested, or the vaccine, doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to be able to resume life as normal," said Kennedy, who says it's imperative that relatives still be able to see their loved ones with proper precautions.

There is some hope on the horizon.

"We are expecting to see the first vaccines given in skilled nursing facilities the week of December 27, and we are ramped up & ready to go for that," said Voepel. "I think you’ll see it starting to open up more and more in the springtime."