Snauwaert told investigators with the Dutch-language newspaper De Standaard that nursing homes in Belgium have been “step-mothered” for years. “Our government has forgotten elderly people,” he said when I reached him by phone in Bruges. Snauwaert said he and many of his staff members worked seven days a week from March through May, treating residents—accustomed to frequent daily contact with one another—in isolation and battling critical supply shortages. His own facility ran out of oxygen.
“People thought: Those residential care centers, they are already death houses, if they [die] there a little earlier, then so be it,” he said.
With COVID-19, said Léopold Vanbellingen, research officer at the European Institute of Bioethics, “the main problem we have had is with politicians who chose to sacrifice nursing home residents for this crisis.”
Belgians have been living under a caretaker government for more than a year. Unable to form a governing coalition, the parliamentary system has been at a standstill, the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south more divided than usual. Competing health ministry officials and overlapping federal and regional governments all add up to a mismanaged response to the coronavirus crisis.
“Officials considered that those who get COVID-19—or anything else during the crisis, including a heart attack—are not a priority for hospital care. They are not admitted,” said Vanbellingen. “A lot have died alone in nursing homes not necessarily because it made no sense to admit them, but because experts chose that it would be necessary not to admit them.”
The institute found some hospitals refusing to admit all advanced-age patients, but particularly those living in nursing or retirement homes. One nursing home, featured on national television news, became so overwhelmed that doctors sent to help found feces in the hallway and dehydrated residents drinking from dirty cups.
De Standaard newspaper launched its investigation after registering the scale of what happened, said Ruud Goossens, one of two journalists who visited nursing home facilities and spoke to more than 40 doctors, nurses, home directors, and government officials. In Flanders alone, the journalists discovered that more than 3,000 of a total 4,800 COVID-19 victims were people who lived in residential care facilities, Goossens said.
At Atrium, a 44-bed nursing home in Kraainem, Goossens spoke to director Kathy Huybrechts. Huybrechts slept on a mattress atop her desk through the crisis once her head nurse and 13 others became ill with the coronavirus. Short-staffed and overwhelmed, Huybrechts summoned ambulances to take sick residents. Twice, medics arrived but refused to accept them once they learned they were COVID-19 cases. Between April and May, 14 of 44 Atrium residents died.
“Huybrechts had problems that everyone in the sector had,” Goossens told me by email. “And they felt abandoned.”
LACK OF PREPAREDNESS for a pandemic has dogged the coronavirus response on both sides of the Atlantic, costing lives predominantly among the elderly but also furthering the spread under the guise of containment. In April New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state health commissioner Howard Zucker made it all but mandatory for hospitals to discharge nursing home patients with COVID-19 and return them to their facilities as a way to free up beds.
In a state order issued March 25, Cuomo also barred testing of those being placed or returned to nursing homes. In the weeks following, the coronavirus killed more than 6,000 nursing home residents in New York.
At a Troy, N.Y., nursing home, an investigation by ProPublica showed how the virus multiplied among residents and nonelderly caregivers. Hospitals transferred to the home two residents with COVID-19 on April 22. Within one month, 18 residents had died. Another 58 had been infected, while at least half of the nursing home’s 100 workers tested positive for the virus.
Other states followed that protocol with similar results, ProPublica found: Michigan lost 5 percent of roughly 38,000 nursing home residents, and New Jersey lost 12 percent of more than 43,000 residents. In contrast Florida, which barred hospital transfers back to nursing homes and tested 80 percent of nursing home residents, by mid-June had 1.6 percent of 73,000 nursing home residents die.
Columbia University epidemiologist Charles Branas said the “reverse triage” strategy may well have increased New York’s death toll: “If you introduce 4,500 people sick with a potentially lethal disease into a vulnerable and notoriously imperfectly monitored population,” he told ProPublica, “people are apt to die.”