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A salute to nursing home staff

By Patrick J. Stapleton

As a leader of a not-for-profit skilled nursing and rehabilitation center that provides health care annually to hundreds of frail elders in Boston, I have witnessed first-hand the pervasiveness of the coronavirus pandemic within the 65-plus population, the most vulnerable age group in the ongoing outbreak.

Despite proactive precautions on top of existing infection control measures, and a growing understanding of how the virus spreads, the impact has been devastating and the toll staggering. Nearly every corner of the senior health care system has been touched, tragically, by COVID-19. Nursing homes in particular have been hit hard, accounting for about 40 percent of fatalities nationally and 62 percent in Massachusetts.

At Sherrill House, we saw this up close. Yet, though positioned on the front lines of this pandemic, we haven’t found the popular support that one might find in a just war. We’ve had limited support while the enemy, COVID-19, is staring us down. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) early on was been hard to come by and federal guidance has changed from one day to the next.

But none of the challenges we faced deterred our army of dedicated staff. They deserve all the credit, even though they seek none of it.

Their dedication shone through during the darkest days of the pandemic. We always say that we are mission-driven organizations – well, these employees are the mission. They embody the hard work out of a sense of duty, a calling to care for our residents, even at significant personal risk. COVID-19 placed an incredible demand on our front-line staff, and they responded by returning to work day after day.

As people, they had cared for, in some cases over several years, fell victim to the virus, it was a devastating loss. Administrative nurses who hadn’t delivered care for years gowned up and cared for patients as other staff went out on medical leave due to the virus. The heroic work of caregivers is more important than ever, and it deserves full recognition and the strongest support.

Elder health care has often been forgotten in our nation. Unlike in other parts of the world, where elders are revered and respected, too often we put priorities for our seniors behind other pressing concerns. In the case of COVID-19, this lack of planning and attention was nearly catastrophic for our system of care and further burdened nursing home heroes already stretched thin. It is imperative that we not only thank the women and men who work day and night at nursing homes, but that we soon look to permanent policy measures that will help them care for the residents they know and love for years to come.

We are not out of the woods. The holy grail of a vaccine remains months away, at least, and there are forecasts for a “second wave” of infections. Now is not the time for complacency or a wavering of support for the caregivers on the front lines who have barely had the chance to catch their breath.

Patrick J. Stapleton is the CEO of Sherrill House, a not-for-profit skilled nursing and rehabilitation center in Jamaica Plain.