‘Honor Your Father and Mother’ … By Keeping COVID-19 Out of Long-Term Care Facilities

By David Marshall Published on May 8, 2020

The first commandment with a promise, said Jesus, is “Honor your father and mother.”

Mother’s Day is almost upon us. Millions of Moms, Dads, and grandparents are shut up in long-term care facilities. The Angel of Death seems to stalk the elderly population. Their loved ones are stuck helplessly outside the window, tapping to remind them they care.

With the world falling apart around many of our oldest generation, how can we honor those who held us on their knees when we were small and helpless? How can we lend honor and dignity to our oldest citizens at a time not only of danger, but of loneliness, fear, and confusion for many?

One way we can honor our elders is by holding our governors’ feet to the fire, and demanding that they protect the vulnerable in elder care facilities as best they can.

Allowing COVID-19 Into Nursing Homes

John Zmirak wrote a piece here a week ago provocatively entitled “Why is Andrew Cuomo Killing Patients in Nursing Homes?” Zmirak imagined Cuomo as a member of a cargo cult, aping Judeo-Christian values by saying “If everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” But then his Department of Health issued a decree perversely demanding that infected persons be admitted to nursing homes, no questions asked:

“No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the NH [nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.” And now thousands have died in New York State nursing homes.

I suspect Cuomo’s error arises not from malice, but from the left hand not knowing what the far left hand is doing. Old folks may be threatened more by stupidity and laziness than by outright cruelty.

The New Yorker recently ran an article, for instance, praising the politicians who run Seattle for doing a much better job of protecting the populace than Cuomo and especially Bill De Blasio in New York.

That has not been our experience here, however.

Flagrant Hazards

I live in Seattle. Six weeks after I returned from China, people started dying at Life Care Center on the other side of town, the first fatalities in the United States.

We were shocked to find how unaware managers remained at the facility where our Mother had recently moved. My sister, a psychotherapist, dropped off a copy of Department of Health recommendations. I suggested that visitors be asked verbally about their health, and not be allowed in if they had any cold symptoms. The manager told us “We are confident that what we are doing to protect all residents, families and employees … is within the recommended guidelines.” And she refused to verbally ask or to ban sick visitors in the face of a pandemic!

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She was right about one thing. Our governor, Jay Inslee, was aggressive in closing down golf courses, parks, and hiking trails, where your chances of catching health were greater than of catching viruses. He seemed slower in stopping the spread of COVID-19 where the threat was greatest: between and within long-term care facilities.

Caring, Yet Still Wrong

Most of the staff at Mom’s facility seemed caring people. Some came from cultures where the aged are honored. But not all spoke English well, or seemed trained in basic hygiene. My sister found the same rag had been used to clean countertops after being used on the toilet! Many staff worked in multiple facilities, a pattern that’s been linked to the spread of COVID-19 in the Seattle area.

The state response to our concerns was in some ways even lazier. A staff member conducted a review of the facility’s paperwork, found nothing (the problem wasn’t with the paperwork), and sat on her chair. We found numerous flagrant hazards by showing up, looking around, and talking to staff.

Tearing Families Apart

To date, residents in 250 long-term care facilities in Washington State have tested positive for COVID-19. More than 500 deaths, some 60% of all pandemic deaths in the state, have occurred in such institutions, according to the Seattle Times. Parallel figures are 41% in Ohio and 66% in Arizona.

No one lives forever. Jesus recognized the ugliness of death. But the terrible thing about this disease is how it tears families apart, isolating the elderly just when they need comfort. Instead of a warm hand and eyes of loved ones as they face that “final frontier,” with final words of encouragement in their ears (or on their lips), millions struggle for breath surrounded by rows of beds with others coughing, while medical personnel — harassed, tired, and sometimes fearful strangers — rush in dressed like aliens in space suits.

Study your state’s nursing home policies. Make phone calls. Ask questions. If your state is as foolish as ours (a few seem more proactive), urge your governor to act quickly.

Many, like our mother, suffer from memory loss and therefore more confusion. Dr. Charles Camosy, a bioethicist at Fordham University who specializes in this field, told me that “About half of all nursing home residents have some kind of dementia,” and are particularly defenseless even in the best of times. He expressed the concern that in this emergency, some such patients may be even more poorly treated.

We were lucky. As someone who teaches research, stranded in America by COVID-19, I plunged into studying the virus, and the various factors that cause it to spread, including foolish governing oversight and “petri dishes” like long-term care facilities. I knew it was too deadly to play around with. My sister and brother-in-law made room at home, and we pulled Mom from the path of the tornado. She has waited out the pandemic peacefully, her companion dog Holly at her side.

Others have been less fortunate.

A Practical Mother’s Day Gift

So let’s do something practical for Mother’s Day this year. (And Father’s Day is coming up.)

Study your state’s nursing home policies. Make phone calls. Ask questions. If your state is as foolish as ours (a few seem more proactive), urge your governor to quickly enact the following policies:

  • Insure that staff be confined to working at only one nursing home at a time.
  • Demand on-site inspections by properly protected health personnel. (Slap on a mask.)
  • Insist on verified training programs for staff at care facilities. This doesn’t mean just checking a few boxes to prove “head knowledge.” It means verifying that staff have internalized proper procedures for maintaining hygiene.
  • Interview staff to insure that management in no case allows them to work, or insists on them working, when they are “feeling under the weather.” (Believe it or not, managers have been known to lie to the authorities.)
  • Check staff for fevers at the beginning of every shift.
  • Test staff and residents as soon as such tests become available. (Make them available! No more excuses!)
  • Give staff who faithfully man their positions in this crisis a healthy bonus. (Here the public purse, depleted as it is, could reasonably open a few inches.)

The long-term care industry is suffering financially. Strong, consistent rules will not only save lives, but help this industry regain the confidence of the public.

Giving Honor. And Thanks.

One thing we have learned through this disaster is what true heroism looks like. Not flashy rock stars and Hollywood idols. We have gained a new appreciation for those who serve. Nurses. Doctors. Checkers. Delivery boys. Meat packers.

To those who faithfully take care of our parents and grandparents under awful circumstances in long-term care facilities, let us also say, “Thank you! God be with you!”

And let us also honor our parents, and grandparents, by encouraging each state do its level best. So that those who have served us may now live — or if their time has come, die — in dignity.


Dr. David Marshall holds a B.A. in “the Russian and Chinese Languages and Marxism,” an M.A. in Chinese Religions, and a Ph.D. in Christian Thought and Chinese Tradition. His most recent book is Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.

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