Massachusetts is pouring an additional $130 million in funding to help the state’s nursing homes, which have been ravaged by the coronavirus outbreak.
According to the industry, that support is enough for about a month.
“This unprecedented crisis requires unprecedented state investment,” Tara Gregorio, the president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, said in a statement Wednesday, amid dire warnings of what could happen if their needs aren’t met.
Under the worst-case scenario, Gregorio has said that up to 10 percent of the state’s 57,500 nursing home residents could die due to COVID-19.
Already, the vulnerable population has been particularly hard hit by the disease, which is particularly lethal for elderly people. As of Thursday, 232 of the state’s long-term care facilities — which include 383 nursing homes, 255 assisted living residences, and 93 rest homes — had reported cases of COVID-19, and 4,798 of their residents and workers had been infected.
Nearly half of the deaths in Massachusetts attributed to the virus — 610 out of 1,245 — have been in long-term facilities.
“One of the things we know about nursing homes is that it can spread very quickly,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said during a press conference Thursday.
In a letter to state lawmakers this week, Gregorio said facilities face a serious understaffing issue, with many workers at home either sick with COVID-19, quarantined due to exposure, or simply in fear of coming to work. Last week, the state’s first nursing home employee death was reported at a Littleton facility, where more than a third of the workforce was out sick. Statewide, Gregorio says the percentage of vacant positions is 40 percent.
“We need any and all additional resources to immediately staff our nursing facilities, test all residents and staff working the frontlines, and access to enough lifesaving personal protective equipment,” she wrote.
At the current rate, Gregorio said projections forecast that the most likely scenario is that every skilled nursing home has at least one case of COVID-19, over one-third of residents contract the disease, and 3 percent of the overall population die as a result.
“Despite our many pleas, nursing facilities simply have not been given and do not have the resources to fight this pandemic without more support from the Commonwealth,” Gregorio wrote in the letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Karen Spilka, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo
Baker said Wednesday that his administration is “intensely focused” on supporting nursing homes, as they scramble to obtain and marshal limited resources across the state’s health care system.
The administration acted early to restrict outside visitors to nursing homes last month and updated guidance this week to “encourage” widespread testing for even asymptomatic residents and staff. State officials have also partnered with the National Guard and the Broad Institute to expand mobile testing at nursing homes.
They’ve also distributed nearly 1.3 million masks, 200,000 gowns, and more than 2 million gloves to long-term care facilities, amid the global shortage in personal protective equipment — which has forced some homes to reuse gear and even resort to making their own.
Sudders, who is leading the state’s coronavirus response, said Thursday “nursing facilities have gotten the most amount of PPE in all of our shipments.”
The Baker administration also announced $130 million in additional funding this week, including a 10 percent MassHealth rate increase — or roughly $50 million — for all nursing facilities retroactive to April 1, as well as an additional 15 percent increase (another $50 million) to facilities that create dedicated COVID-19 wings. In addition to a Worcester home that was converted into a fully dedicated COVID-19 facility, officials say five other similar facilities are set to open by the end of next week. Roughly $30 million of the newly announced $130 million is going toward establishing those — and future — dedicated facilities.
“The goal here is to be nimble and smart in our approach,” Baker said “No one has ever done this before.”
And to address the staffing shortfall, the administration also announced $1,000 signing bonus for anyone who registers to work at a care facility for a certain period of time; Sudders said Wednesday that the exact number of hours to qualify has yet to be determined.
Gregorio says she appreciates the level of support. She also says it isn’t enough.
“We are making good progress on accessing testing and vital PPE, but we need to do more to help protect and support our residents, their families and workforce,” she said in a statement following the administration’s announcement.
Gregorio called on the state to fund a “hero” wage of double time to secure the estimated 17,000 direct-care employees needed to make up the shortfall.
“We are offering as robust financial incentives as we can afford to existing staff, but the stark reality is that we are unable to reach the most basic staffing levels,” she said.
Combined with other support, she said the needed increase in state funding would amount to about $130 million per month. While she acknowledged that it’s a lot, Gregorio wrote in her letter this week that it’s necessary to address the “escalating crisis” of rising infections and depleted resources.
“Without this, many or most nursing homes will not have the finances to survive this crisis and pay their staff,” she wrote.