More than 22,000 care home residents across England and Wales may have already died as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, according to a grim analysis.
Official data yesterday showed almost 9,000 COVID-19-related deaths in care homes had been recorded in the two countries by the start of May.
But researchers at the London School of Economics fear that count is a huge under-estimate, and the true toll could be more than twice as high.
They said that care home residents taken into hospital before they died were not being counted properly, and that others who didn’t actually catch the virus may have died as a result of less available medical care or help with eating and drinking.
Their calculations took into account those home residents in hospitals, thought to make up 15 per cent of Britain’s official death toll.
And the bleak projection also included ‘excess deaths’ – the number of people dying compared to average – across the care industry as a whole.
It comes as the Government is still under fire for not offering enough support to care homes during the crisis as the industry has accused it of rationing testing and protective equipment to focus its efforts on helping NHS hospitals.
Office for National Statistics data showed yesterday that 8,315 people have died in care homes in England and Wales with coronavirus listed on their death certificate. Researchers at the London School of Economics suggest this is only around 41 per cent of the total, which could be more like 22,000
The research, published yesterday, has not yet undergone peer-review – in which fellow scientists scrutinise the work.
It claims that the number of care home deaths officially recorded is actually only 41.6 per cent of the total.
Dr Jose-Luis Fernández and PhD researcher Adelina Comas-Herrera said: ‘Data on deaths in care homes directly attributed to COVID-19 underestimate the impact of the pandemic on care home residents.
‘They do not take account of indirect mortality effects of the pandemic or problems with the identification of the disease as the cause of death.
‘Not all care home residents die in care homes, (according to CQC data, 15 per cent of all deaths of care home residents are found to happen in hospitals).
‘Deaths of care home residents in hospitals are not currently accounted for in publicly available estimates of the number of deaths in care homes linked to the pandemic.’
The report said that people in care homes might have died because they had been forced to isolate in their rooms and missed out on help with eating and drinking.
They may also have not had the same access to medical care that would have been given before the pandemic, either because treatment was delayed or because they didn’t want to go to hospital out of fear of catching the virus.
There are approximately 400,000 people living in nursing homes in Britain, and a majority of them have dementia, making them extremely vulnerable.
Dr Fernández and Ms Comas-Herrera’s report added: ‘Calculating total excess mortality in care homes since 28 December and adjusting this by the assumption that 15 per cent of care home residents die in hospital, suggests that by the 1st May there had been in excess of 22,000 deaths of care home residents during the COVID-19 pandemic in England and Wales.’
The LSE report comes after weekly statistics yesterday showed almost 10,000 care home residents have now died of coronavirus in Britain – a quarter of all the UK’s victims.
By the start of this month 8,312 people had died in care homes in England and Wales, along with 1,195 in Scotland and 232 in Northern Ireland – a total of 9,739.
Bosses and staff in the industry have accused officials of overlooking them in a scramble to ‘protect the NHS’.
Routine tests were not available for staff or residents for most of March and April and staff say vital personal protective equipment (PPE) has been in limited supply.
Last week top scientists said that ongoing, uncontrolled outbreaks in homes was contributing to Britain’s slow emergence from lockdown.
The reproduction rate of the virus is believed to be higher inside the homes and in hospitals, meaning it is spreading faster and is still a danger, even though it is now at low levels in the community.
ONS data shows that, although homes are still reported to be in the grip of the virus, the number of people dying in them had started to fall by the end of April.
Between April 18 and 24, care homes in England and Wales recorded 2,794 residents’ deaths. But between April 25 and May 1 this fell to 2,423.
Although a single week’s drop is not enough to be certain of a trend, it coincided with a marked drop in deaths of all causes (21,997 to 17,953), in COVID-19 deaths in any location (6,746 to 4,744) and coronavirus hospital deaths (4,841 to 3,214).
The scale of the tragedy in care homes has become clearer as the outbreak has progressed and appears to have peaked later than the crisis in hospitals.
In the week ending May 1, care home deaths accounted for 40 per cent of the total, while hospital deaths made up 53 per cent.
Two weeks earlier, however (April 11 to 17) this split was 23 per cent and 70 per cent.
And in the week ending April 3, just five per cent of deaths happened in care homes, compared to 89 per cent in hospitals.
The Alzheimer’s Society said there is a ‘tragically high’ number of people dying in care homes.
Director of research at the charity, Fiona Carragher, said yesterday: ‘Sadly, devastation continues in care homes with more than three times the usual number of deaths than average reported clearly showing the cost of not putting social care on an equal footing with the NHS.
‘We need to know why the death toll in care homes remains so high in addition to coronavirus-reported deaths. 70 per cent of care home residents have dementia and we’re deeply concerned that this indicates an increase in deaths due to dementia, caused by isolation and reduction in care workers.
‘Each of these deaths is a heart-breaking loss to their friends, families and carers which is why the Government must honour their commitment to ensure care homes get testing for all residents and staff and the protective equipment they need.
‘We now approach our third month of lockdown, still with a tragically high number of care home deaths.’
The charity added that dementia patients are ‘really struggling’ with visiting restrictions and urged the Government to find a way to facilitate visiting hours to prevent their social wellbeing being ‘irreversibly damaged’.