Staffing shortages in long-term care facilities was already an issue before the coronavirus pandemic struck earlier this year.
Now, the facilities have become hotbeds for infections and deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, as their residents — older adults and those with underlying conditions — are particularly susceptible.
Matthew Pool, administrator of Wayside Farm Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Cuyahoga Falls, said there are employees in the long-term care industry who have refused to work because of fear of the virus.
"We were talking about staffing issues well before COVID came into play," said Pool, whose facility has not had any confirmed coronavirus cases among staff or residents.
Along with the health, safety and staffing concerns, Pool said logistics and media coverage also have been a challenge.
Facilities have had issues getting supplies, including personal protective equipment and getting shipments from vendors. They’ve also struggling with the no-visitation rule set by the state in March, although telehealth and video visits have helped, he said.
"I don't think necessarily health care facilities have gotten a fair shake," he said. "Some have not done well with COVID-19, and others have done very well, and others have been ‘this is routine business.’"
Pool shared his experience during a virtual meeting of the Summit County Nursing Homes and Facilities Task Force on Tuesday.
The group was created before the pandemic to examine the condition of long-term care facilities in Summit County and advocate for change.
It plans to release its report with immediate, intermediate and long-term recommendations by October. The report was initially due by the end of the year but has been moved up as the coronavirus pandemic continues to strike long-term care facilities particularly hard.
"As we have seen through this crisis, our nursing home and assisted living facilities absolutely need this attention," said Summit County Council president Jeff Wilhite, who chairs the task force. "There's two ways we can approach it: We can approach it from a finger-pointing blame standpoint, or we can focus our attention on recommendations for positive change, both immediate, intermediate and long-term."
Wilhite said the latter is the better way.
"The folks in these facilities need us, and that's inclusive of the staff and the residents," he said.
Summit County has 42 licensed nursing homes, 44 assisted living facilities and 48 residential facilities, with a total of more than 8,700 licensed or certified beds, said Sam McCoy, senior vice president of elder rights for Direction Home Akron Canton Area Agency on Aging & Disabilities.
Although new coronavirus infections and deaths have decreased in nursing homes, assisted-living and other skilled nursing facilities, they still account for seven of every 10 deaths and almost a quarter of all cases, according to Ohio Department of Health data.
Summit County Public Health reported Tuesday that 153 of the county's 197 COVID-19 deaths, or close to 78%, were residing in long-term care facilities. Of the county’s 1,718 cumulative confirmed and probable cases, 463, or nearly 27%, reside in long-term care.
The task force — which has committees on staffing, legislation, operations and visitation of facilities — had three meetings over the winter, before the pandemic. Staffing has been a prominent focus at each meeting as the group searches for solutions that can improve conditions for residents, their families and facility operators.
The task force’s last three meetings were postponed by the pandemic.
Summit County Probate Court Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer said Tuesday that during the pandemic, the court has been connecting with people in long-term care facilities virtually, a technological change she hopes continues as an option after the pandemic.
She noted at some facilities, employees are using their own phones or iPads and said the task force should focus on how it can assist nursing homes in getting technology capabilities.
"We have now identified...the need to have technology inside the nursing home so that we can see what's going on," Stormer said.
Whitney Spencer with the Summit County Executive’s Office said there’s also a need to regulate temporary agencies who contract with facilities to follow the same state regulations the facilities do. Training and pay for STNAs should also be increased, she said.
Genevieve Gipson with the National Network of Career Nursing Assistants noted June 18-25 is the 43rd annual National Nursing Assistants Week, "Nursing Assistants: Kindness in Action." She encouraged people to do something nice for nursing assistants. She also said they should get hazard pay.
"Our workforce is tired, they're stressed, they're underpaid," she said. "Right now, they're getting only bad publicity...They have the ideas to make care better, and they want to be a part of the solution."
Kim Hone McMahan, a retired Beacon Journal reporter whose mother was injured in a nursing home last year, agreed that the pandemic has shown that aides need a wage increase, both to reward their hard work and attract and keep people in the positions. She suggested people contact their legislators.
"Cashiers who scan adult diapers make the same or more than those who change them," she said. "I mean, that’s not right."
Summit County Council approved creating the task force in August. The idea for the group came about after a June report listed a Copley facility that closed last summer, Fairlawn Rehab and Nursing Center, among the worst in the nation.
The property was acquired by Foundations Health Solutions of North Olmstead, which, after extensive renovations, is opening it as Timberland Ridge Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation.
The task force plans to meet virtually at 10 a.m. the third Tuesday of the month in July and August, with meetings live-streamed on the Facebook page "Summit County Nursing Homes and Facilities Task Force."