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Editorial: SC can't keep isolating nursing home residents inside coronavirus petri dishes

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Virus Outbreak Italy Nursing Home Reunions Photo Gallery

Families who want to visit their loved ones in S.C. nursing homes still have to resort to waving through the windows, even as COVID-19 continues to spread through the facilities. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

It’s inevitable that COVID-19 infections would be much more deadly inside nursing homes than just about anywhere you can imagine, because the residents are the very definition of a vulnerable population: elderly, overwhelmingly, if not entirely, suffering from chronic diseases, and generally frail.

And in fact, nursing home residents accounted for 27% of the COVID-19 deaths in South Carolina through the end of July, even though they make up less than 0.5% of the state’s population.

What’s not inevitable is that COVID-19 would make its way into nursing homes — and keep making its way into nursing homes after they were sealed off to visitors in mid-March. That lockdown should have made those facilities the safest places for the frail elderly.

Instead, just the opposite happened: More than 10% of S.C. nursing home residents had tested positive as of July 28 — a quarter of them in July. That’s five times the portion of the general population that’s tested positive.

And it might be even worse, because, as The Post and Courier’s Joseph Cranney reports, South Carolina doesn’t require nursing homes to test residents or employees, even after they’ve come into contact with infected people. We have no idea how many do, because three and a half months after DHEC finally agreed to name nursing homes where residents and employees tested positive or died from COVID-19, it’s still awful dark inside those facilities.

Every day, DHEC reports the number of South Carolinians who were tested for COVID-19 along with the number who tested positive, and from those numbers derives the positive test rate. But DHEC’s twice-weekly reports on nursing home infections and deaths don’t give us the total number of tests — only the number of positives.

That means we don’t have a clue whether nursing homes are testing employees and residents who need to be tested. For all we know, some facilities with outbreaks have just stopped testing, and the infections continued to mount unreported.

The data darkness is compounded by Gov. Henry McMaster’s continued lockout of family and friends. The nursing home quarantine made good sense in March when we thought the first wave would last a few weeks, maybe a month or two. But clearly it hasn’t kept the virus out.

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What it has done is isolate the elderly at a time they need the support of loved ones the most. And it has shielded nursing homes from scrutiny. So we have no idea specifically why the virus has been able to invade so many nursing homes. Are they not testing employees routinely? Not following safety protocols? What?

While there are some excellent nursing homes, in South Carolina and across the country, there are also some that are far short of excellent, and locking out friends and family makes it much easier for them to hide all manner of carelessness and infection, along with abuse and neglect.

We’ll never be able to make all nursing homes entirely safe because they’re run by human beings. But we can do more to keep COVID-19 from infiltrating them.

That starts with information: DHEC should report not just the number of positive tests but the number of total tests, and the dates of those tests, just like it does with the general population.

The state should consider requiring routine testing of employees and mandating isolation and testing after one of them tests positive.

And Mr. McMaster needs to find a way to join the 35 other states that have allowed some visitors back in on a limited basis, with careful precautions, as Texas and Washington did on Thursday.

Yes, that would increase the risk of infection. But given the devastating consequences of abuse and neglect in nursing homes, and how ineffective the lockdown has been, allowing them to continue to operate without outside scrutiny is also dangerous. And how much more dangerous and cruel is it to keep our most fragile members of society in a virtual prison, living out their lives cut off from their loved ones?

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