In Depth

Behind closed doors: coronavirus crisis in care homes

WHO says that care home residents could account for half of Europe’s coronavirus deaths

Staff working in care homes, GP surgeries and hospices will have to wait at least a month for government-supplied personal protective equipment (PPE).

An online portal through which primary and social care providers can order PPE, which had been due to start operating in early April, is now not expected to be in full working order for another five weeks, The Times reports.

More than 100 health and social care workers have died from Covid-19, the paper adds, while care-home residents are among the most vulnerable to dying from the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that elderly care-home residents could account for up to half of Covid-19 deaths in Europe. Hans Kluge, the WHO’s European director, said that an “unimaginable human tragedy” was unfolding in care homes.

What is happening in care homes?

Covid-19 fatalities in care homes in England and Wales have more than quadrupled in a week, rising to 1,043, according to the latest official figures.

By 10 April, more than 1,000 people were confirmed to have died in care homes from the virus, up from 217, the previous week. The number of people who died in private homes also more than tripled, to 466.

However, figures gathered by The Guardian suggest that the actual death toll is considerably higher. 

Care UK, which runs 122 homes in England and Scotland, recorded 140 deaths in four days, a 65% increase, the paper reports. Meanwhile, Four Seasons Health Care reported more than 160 deaths in 190 care homes – a 60% increase over six days. 

Martin Green, the chief executive of industry group Care England, told the paper this week that the number of fatalities in care “could easily exceed” hospital deaths where 17,337 people have already died.

Green estimates that at least 7,500 people have already died in care homes.

The Department of Health and Social Care says it is attempting to speed up data collection, including closing the current 10-day time-lag, amid concerns that data underestimating the scale of the crisis may have slowed down the government’s response.

Is this happening elsewhere?

Kluge, the WHO director, said yesterday that many people living in care homes were “particularly vulnerable to this virus”, which is generally more dangerous to older people.

“According to estimates from countries in the European region, up to half of those who have died from Covid-19 were resident in long-term care facilities,” he said. 

“This is an unimaginable human tragedy. To the many who are experiencing this loss, my thoughts are with you.”

Kluge added that people with disabilities, for example dementia, can be more vulnerable because they may have difficulty following health advice.  

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What has the reaction been?

In a letter to The Guardian, Chris Phillipson, professor of sociology and social gerontology at the University of Manchester, writes that the potential failure to report deaths in care homes is “an appalling example of older people in homes (as well as staff) being treated as third-class citizens”.

Phillipson added: “Greater transparency is needed on the coronavirus-related deaths occurring in residential and nursing homes.”

This was echoed by Alan Walker, professor of social policy and social gerontology at the University of Sheffield, who said: “The callous neglect of older people in nursing homes is a national scandal, but it is the predictable result of the long-term neglect of the care sector, compounded by the cuts to local authorities under Tory austerity.

“It used to be said that the test of a civilised society is how well it cares for its most vulnerable. Not only have we failed that test, but now the frailest and their poorly paid carers are on the Covid-19 frontline.”

Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, told Sky News that the lack of personal protective equipment and testing had allowed coronavirus to “run wild” in care homes. “The current figures are airbrushing older people out like they don’t matter,” she said.

Whitty, the chief medical officer, said at yesterday’s daily briefing that he would like to see testing increased at care homes. “One of the things we want to do is to extend the amount of testing of people in care homes as the ability to test ramps up over the next few weeks,” says the Evening Standard.

“Because clearly care homes are one of the areas where there are large numbers of vulnerable people and that is an area of risk and therefore we would very much… like to have much more extensive testing.”

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