Nursing-Home Deaths Increased Exponentially Last Year

A pharmacist administers a dose of the Pfizer vaccine to a resident of the Brooklyn Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare nursing home. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Department of Health and Human Services found that nursing-home deaths among Medicare patients increased by 32 percent last year, the Associated Press reports. “The report from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services found that about 4 in 10 Medicare recipients in nursing homes had or likely had COVID-19 in 2020, and that deaths overall jumped by 169,291 from the previous year, before the coronavirus appeared,” the AP continued. The report examined “excess deaths,” a commonly accepted way to measure the impact of a disaster. It discovered two major spikes, in April and then again in December — coinciding with the nation’s two largest waves of the virus.

The pandemic didn’t affect all patients equally, though. Asian Medicare patients “saw the highest increase in death rates, with 27 percent dying in 2020 compared to 17 percent the previous year,” the AP reported. Among white patients, the death rate jumped to 24 percent from 18 percent in 2019. Hispanic and Black patients experienced a death rate of 23 percent, an increase from 15 percent the previous year. Low-income patients suffered a particularly high rate of COVID infection. Patients covered by Medicare and Medicaid combined faced an infection rate of 56 percent, and 26 percent died.

High death rates among nursing-home patients were already a matter of public record. But the inspector general’s report suggests that COVID’s impact may have been even greater than expected. “We knew this was going to be bad, but I don’t think even those of us who work in this area thought it was going to be this bad,” David Grabowski, a Harvard professor of health policy, told the AP. “This was not individuals who were going to die anyway. We are talking about a really big number of excess deaths.” On the most superficial basis, these deaths indicate something about the severity of COVID. For the elderly, and for people with disabilities, the virus proved an especially deadly foe. But there are also political implications to the inspector general’s report.

In terms of policy, the scrutiny applied to these death rates could help experts mitigate similar tragedies in the future. Death is inevitable; mass death might not be. High rates of infection and death among low-income patients suggest another, darker truth about the way we care for the elderly, the sick, and the poor. When social care is substandard for the whole of a person’s life, they are uniquely vulnerable to a threat like COVID. Our shrinking welfare state, and our uneven system of care for the elderly and for people with certain disabilities, could not hope to match the virus. When people slip through the cracks, they die. That is a political choice. The consequences are preventable. The best way to prevent future tragedies is to build a political and economic system that truly honors the COVID dead. Each excess death marks a life, and each life possesses inherent dignity and worth. It just doesn’t look that way right now.

Nursing-Home Deaths Increased Exponentially Last Year