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The national coronavirus death toll in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities is shocking and the stories are gut wrenching.

More than 56,000 nursing home residents in the U.S. have died - some alone and afraid without a family member by their side. That’s 44% of all national COVID-19 related deaths, yet nursing home residents only make up 1% of the U.S. population.

Here in Montana, there have been 13 deaths or 40% of total COVID-19 related deaths from an assisted living facility and most recently, from a memory care unit.

As compared to other states, many of Montana’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been proactive and have limited exposures, so far. However, they must remain vigilant to prevent more infections and outbreaks.

The first major outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. was reported on February 29 in Washington State - in a nursing home. It was clear from the start that long-term care facilities would be a hotbed for the virus.

To keep residents of nursing homes safe, Congress must ensure that all facilities:

•Regularly test residents and staff; with rigorous testing, nursing homes can identify cases early and prevent the spread of the virus.

•Have and use personal protective equipment (PPE).

•Report COVID-19 cases and deaths daily; complete transparency will enable residents and their families to make informed decisions.

•Facilitate virtual visits between residents and their families; loved-ones serve as additional eyes and ears - and are often the first to spot changes in a resident’s physical or mental health. Virtual visits also reduce the isolation that residents face when family members can’t visit regularly.

Additionally, here in Montana, state officials and state legislators must assure that:

•Nursing home standards are enforced. If standards are not met, citations should be issued or facilities should be shut down.

•Montanans have the option of staying in their own homes as they age; 90% of Montanans age 50+ want to remain in their homes rather than move to a nursing home, yet state Medicaid dollars currently favor nursing homes.

•Long-term care facility workers are paid adequately for the difficult and increasingly risky conditions they face.

All facilities must strengthen their infection control procedures. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found nationally that more than 80 percent of nursing homes were cited for infection prevention failures – and that was before the pandemic. If facilities ignore basic procedures like handwashing and always using PPE, they won’t be able to keep residents safe.

Finally, Congress and state officials must stop all efforts to provide nursing homes with immunity related to COVID-19. Long-term care providers must remain responsible for negligent actions that fail to protect the health - and lives - of their residents.

Our parents, grandparents, and spouses are dying in record numbers – often scared and alone. Congress and state officials must act now to protect nursing home residents – and to stem the needless loss of life.

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