Nursing home operators fear 'collapse' after another COVID wave

A sign outside a building reads "Heroes work here"
An assisted living facility in Albany, Minn., in October 2020. Long-term care facilities across the state already dealing with staff shortages are now seeing more staff out with COVID-19.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2020

In the early stages of the pandemic, nursing homes and assisted living facilities faced enormous challenges and grief, as the virus had severe and deadly consequences on residents. Now some say the system of caring for vulnerable people is itself in danger.

“We are no longer in crisis, we are on the brink of collapse,” said Kari Thurlow, the president and CEO of LeadingAge Minnesota. “I don't know that we can necessarily predict how many more closures will occur.”

With vaccination, deaths dropped dramatically, and while long-term care facilities maintained their safety protocols, things were a bit more normal. But since the summer, shortages in staff as well as lags in supply delivery and services gradually became more disruptive.

Thurlow says “the acute staffing crisis does lead to historically low occupancy that makes it very difficult to continue to operationalize these settings.”

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Nursing home operators talk more about closing, Thurlow said.

Long-term care facilities find maintaining day-to-day services a challenge because workers in other sectors are out with COVID-19.

Because of staffing outages elsewhere, daily lab work results take longer to come back. There also are shortages of drivers for services like Metro Mobility and some long-term care homes have seen delays in garbage pickup.

Patti Cullen, the president and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota, said the omicron wave is forcing home administrators to rethink a number of scenarios.

"We're scrambling for all these things. It's not just, ‘Who do we fit the shift in?’ It's, ‘OK, we can't wait till the end of the month to have labs done. So who can we temporarily get to come in to do it.’ So it's those kinds of things that are causing us a little bit of angst,” she said.

The state has provided Minnesota National Guard troops to work as temporary nurse assistants.

Lt. Col. Brian Douty, who is in charge of operations for the Minnesota National Guard COVID Task Force, said around 600 Guard soldiers and airmen are backfilling in 15 long-term care facilities, as well as in rehab facilities and at community testing clinics. And the majority are new to health care.

"We may have a few medics that we have in our formations, but we tried to leave anybody that is a medical provider on the civilian side to their job,” he said.

Douty said the Guard members working in these facilities have gone through a 75-hour training program to be certified nursing assistants.