For many people who died of coronavirus, the suffering of their final days was accompanied by the pain of dying alone and isolated from their families, a new study reveals.
The odds that a US COVID-19 victim who died between February and Ma this year would do so in hospital were 11.5-times higher than the odds of dying in a hospital of any cause during the same period in 2018, according to Northwestern University research.
During that time period in 2020, nearly 70 percent of people who succumbed to COVID-19 died in hospitals or other medical facilities. Another 23 percent died in nursing homes.
And the researchers believe many of these victims were likely nursing home patients transferred to hospitals, given the high death toll of coronavirus among elderly Americans.
Long term care facilities and hospitals alike had to impose restrictions on visitors to reduce the spread of coronavirus, which likely meant loved ones could not be at the sides of these dying patients in their final days and hours.
Now, nursing homes are warning of another spike in infections as coronavirus spreads in new hotspots – and it could mean another wave of excruciatingly lonely deaths and losses for thousands of families.
‘A loved one dying alone takes a huge mental toll on families,’ said lead study author Dr Sadiya Khan.
‘it impairs the family’s ability to grieve and cope with the loss [and], for patients, we’ve all thought about how terrible it would be to have to die alone. This is the horror happening to thousands of people in medical facilities where no family member or loved one is able to be present with them during their final moments on earth.’
Between February and March, 2020, 70% of Americans who died of COVID-19 spent their final days in hospitals (red, far left), likely alone, compared to just 35% percent of people who died of any cause in 2018 (blue), new Northwestern University research reveals
Americans ar 12 times more likely to die in hospitals of COVID-19 this year than they were of any cause in 2018, a new study reveals – and it means many spend their final days alone (file)
Every year, Americans die alone in hospitals or nursing homes, rather than in the comfort of home, surrounded by family and friends as most people hope.
These deaths in isolation are still common, but much less so, in a typical year.
According to the Northwestern University researchers’ analysis of Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) data, about 36 percent of deaths by any cause in the same time period of 2018 (the most recent year for which the agency has complete data) occurred in medical facilities.
Another 19 percent of Americans died in nursing homes and about eight percent died in hospice facilities that year.
Nearly a third (31 percent) of all people who died that year in the US did so at home, where most people say they’d like to be when they reach the end of their lives.
But 2020 has not been a typical year.
Since February 1, there have been as many as 212,979 ‘excess deaths’ – that is, fatality counts beyond what would be expected in a typical year – according to CDC data (which is also notorious for undercounting such deaths).
Nursing homes and hospitals have imposed restrictions on visitors in an effort to preserve their low stocks of PPE and keep coronavirus from spreading – but Northwestern University researchers warn of the danger of trauma for families and poor quality end-of-life care for people who become fatally ill with the virus (file)
And hospitals that would normally call families and ask them to come quickly to the hospital to be by their loved one’s side as the end neared, often cast aside that protocol for a new one.
As coronavirus has swept the nation, particularly earlier this year when the threat of shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gloves and aprons was dire, hospitals had to take every measure to keep the virus from spreading while ensuring that staff attending to COVID-19 patients were protected.
If they could barely provide PPE for their own personnel, many felt they certainly couldn’t provide it to visitors, and without protection, they equally couldn’t risk more people catching coronavirus as patients threatened to overwhelm the health care system in places like New York City.
Nursing home faced a similar threat. Coronavirus has spread like wildfire among elderly residents who are more vulnerable to infection and indeed to deadly infection if they catch coronavirus.
Experts are warning of an impending rise in coronavirus cases in US nursing homes, which could mean extensions of isolating visitor restrictions and, eventually, a rise in lonely deaths in these homes. Pictured: a staff member at Southern Pines nursing home in Georgia where cases are spiking, helps a resident with her lunch (file)
Some states have been hit particularly hard. The Northwestern team found that 60 percent of people who died of coronavirus in Minnesota died in nursing homes.
Only eight percent of New Yorkers died at home.
‘High rates of nursing home deaths in several states reveal a highly vulnerable population and the inability to optimize resources such as PPE (personal protection equipment) to prevent infection transmission these high-risk locations,’ said lead study author Dr Sadiya Khan, a physician at Northwestern.
‘It’s especially important as nursing homes are reopening to visitors and may be exposing residents, especially in areas where there are increasing rates of cases.’
On Tuesday, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) warned that those spikes in cases are imminent.
The groups have written to the National Governors Association, warning that in many of the 33 states where more than five percent of coronavirus tests are coming back positive, nursing homes are vastly underprepared.
Nursing homes in these places are on the cusp of PPE shortages, and are reporting slow test turnaround times.
If unaddressed, these combined issues will almost certainly lead to more deaths in these facilities.
‘While recent research shows US deaths in medical facilities are decreasing and deaths at home and in hospice facilities are increasing, the burden of deaths attributed to COVID-19 may reverse these overall trends,’ said study co-author and Northwestern cardiovascular medicine fellow Dr Sarah Chuzi.