Since the emergence of COVID-19, it has been apparent that the virus affects the elderly significantly more than children and young adults. The first significant outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States occurred in a nursing home in Washington State. Every public health expert from the federal level to the local level has warned that we need to protect nursing homes from the COVID-19 outbreak in order to protect our most vulnerable North Carolinians.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, nursing home advocates have called for the Cooper Administration to conduct regular testing in nursing homes to act as a critical surveillance mechanism to track the spread of the virus among residents. On May 12, Vice President Mike Pence directed every governor to test every nursing home resident for COVID-19 to detect the disease and stop further outbreaks. However, Governor Cooper completely ignored this advice, only testing the six state-owned facilities and overlooking the over 400 nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state.
NC Media Outlets reported on June 25 that the Cooper Administration had taken little to no action to begin testing at all the nursing homes to protect the residents by the end of June, despite his claims that testing nursing home residences was important to him. One week later, in response to these media reports, Gov. Cooper announced a partnership with CVS to conduct a one-time test on every nursing home resident by the end of August. Unfortunately, the Cooper Administration still does not have a plan to provide regular testing for nursing home residents.
Even worse, the Cooper Administration is now recommending that nursing homes test their staff half as often as the federal government recommends. Given that nursing home staff have a greater chance of bringing the virus into the nursing homes, experts are placing increased importance on regular, repeated testing in order to detect infections and keep them out of contact with vulnerable populations. A comprehensive testing plan would also allow for a loosening of the visitation policies and subsequent social isolation responsible for the increasing amounts of despondency and depression in our seniors. No wonder experts have called the Governor’s response “inadequate.”
Protestations by Dr. Mandy Cohen, the Secretary of NCDHHS, that regular testing of nursing home staff would be too expensive ring completely hollow since NCDHHS has received $337 million dollars specifically for testing and tracing efforts. Given the fact that nursing homes are the epicenter of North Carolina’s COVID-19 crisis, failing to conduct regular testing of patients and staff is inexcusable. Further, the cost of Governor Cooper’s lockdown on the NC economy has already cost the State billions of dollars and put over 1,100,000 people out of work to slow the spread, so spending a few million dollars on nursing home testing is clearly an investment which the State would be willing to support.
The Governor’s lack of action on testing at NC nursing homes is having a direct and unfortunate impact. COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported in approximately 40% of NC nursing homes and nursing home residents make up almost half of the COVID-19 deaths recorded in the state. According to Don Taylor, a professor at Duke University, “People are going to die that don’t have to die.”
Governor Cooper’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has put our most vulnerable population at risk because he failed to provide decisive leadership when it mattered. Unfortunately, this fits a pattern with the Governor. When hurricanes ravaged Eastern NC, he held a lot of press conferences, but failed to get relief dollars to affected families and farms. When riots broke out across the state earlier this year, he allowed mobs to destroy small businesses and monuments while failing to provide appropriate support for local law enforcement and marched with the protestors. When his lockdown collapsed the NC economy and put millions of people out of work, his Administration has been ranked dead last in the country for getting relief into the hands of the unemployed.
North Carolina deserves better. We need a Governor who will not only talk the talk when it comes to protecting North Carolina but walk the walk.
Michael Whatley is NCGOP Chairman.