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KARE 11 Investigates: Lack of masks and oversight worry Seniors’ families

With family visits stopped and state inspections limited by the COVID-19 crisis, advocates worry vulnerable seniors may be left unprotected.

Long term care facilities like nursing homes and assisted living have been ground zero for coronavirus cases and deaths. But they are struggling with a shortage of personal protective equipment like masks for staff.

In a stunning admission, the state revealed at a Tuesday Senate hearing that there are no surgical masks left for long term care facilities.

“PPE is simply not available,” said Kris Eheresmann at the Minnesota Department of Health.

The governor’s office confirms that a million more masks were ordered, but the state says the supplier failed to deliver. The masks may not get here for three more weeks.

As concerned families flood complaint lines, advocates worry that vulnerable residents are at risk – because stressed staff is working without proper equipment and less oversight by families and investigators.

Elder Voice Family Advocates, a group made up of families with loved ones in senior care facilities, has been delivering much needed handmade masks to senior homes.

“Those workers deserve to be safe,” said Kris Sundberg.

Leading Age represents senior living facilities. The guidance they give their members is that “everyone in the facility should be using some sort of face covering,” says Kari Thurlow. But when asked if they have enough masks to do that she replied, “I don’t think so.”

It’s just one of the problems that the state long term care Ombudsman said she’s hearing from families. She recounted the story of a woman concerned that her mother’s caretakers don’t have proper equipment.

“Her mother is on hospice and staff continued to bathe-dress assist without wearing face masks,” said Cheryl Hennen.

Her staff has been inundated with complaints and concerns, more than 750 last week alone.

“The totals are in reality higher,” she explained.

Key issues families are bringing up include troubles with the ability to use electronic monitoring like cameras to keep track of loved ones’ care.

Some report that routine care is falling by the wayside as staffs struggle to combat the coronavirus.  

Other calls center around compassion care visits, the ability for to visit a family member at the end of their life. Restrictions on visitors at facilities are supposed to carve out exceptions for end of life comfort.

Sundberg of Elder Voice said she’s not surprised because she is hearing the same concerns from her members. “When you’re under this kind of pressure the care suffers,” she said.

But because of coronavirus fears the ombudsman’s office is not going on-site to look into these issues. Hennen said her staff is working virtually.

The Department of Health, which has legal oversight of the facilities, is also limiting visits by investigators only to “egregious complaints.”

Sundberg says the lack of oversight is probably her biggest worry. Without it – and without family visits – she asks who is looking out for residents?

“Families can’t look out for them. Our oversight agencies have blinders on because of issues to try to keep them safe,” she said.

Leading Age, the industry group, says they are committed to keeping all residents safe during this coronavirus crisis.  

But they warn that their staff is stretched thin and will be stretched thinner. They are calling for changes to state law to loosen restrictions so they can do more hiring.

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KARE 11’s coverage of the coronavirus is rooted in Facts, not Fear. Visit kare11.com/coronavirus for comprehensive coverage, find out what you need to know about the Midwest specifically, learn more about the symptoms, and see what companies in Minnesota are hiring. Have a question? Text it to us at 763-797-7215. And get the latest coronavirus updates sent right to your inbox every morning. Subscribe to the KARE 11 Sunrise newsletter here. Help local families in need: www.kare11.com/give11

The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

There is also a data portal online at mn.gov/covid19.