As COVID-19 spreads throughout Europe, nursing home residents are found to be abandoned at some facilities in Spain. According to NPR, Spain is the second hardest-hit country in Europe by the virus with more than 39,000 confirmed cases and 2,800 deaths as of March 24, 2020. Currently, over a fifth of the nursing homes in the Madrid region have had cases of COVID-19.
On March 23, the Defense Minister Margarita Robles of Spain announced Spanish military finding care home residents abandoned, with some left dead in their beds. It was discovered staff in some centers left after cases of COVID-19 were detected. Residents were left to take care of themselves–including those in serious conditions.
The bodies were found after soldiers arrived at residential homes to disinfect and provide emergency health services all across the country. The day after the announcement, 514 new deaths were registered in a 24-hour period—with retirement homes being among the hardest hit locations. The week prior, a privately owned nursing home in Madrid reported 20 deaths and 75 infections, claiming a lack of adequate materials to take care of the sick residents and dead bodies.
Because staff members have abandoned some facilities, there is no way to follow the usual protocol when a resident dies. While Spanish nursing homes usually put the body of a deceased person in cold storage until a funeral service picks it up, bodies are now being left in beds until staff can remove them with the proper equipment.
According to the defense minister, government action will be taken against those responsible for neglecting the residents: “We will be completely relentless and forceful with the kind of treatment elderly residents receive in these centers. I know that the vast majority [of centers] are fulfilling their obligations.”
While Spain’s government has not yet released how many bodies or neglected residents have been found, public prosecutors are investigating possible criminal neglect.
Other nursing homes have been hit hard by the virus. At least 24 people were reported dead at a nursing home that had been disinfected by the army only a few days before in the Madrid district of Chamartín. Other nursing homes are also being disinfected in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus and other investigations are being conducted around the country where similar circumstances have transpired and resulted in the loss of many lives.
Even though Spain was ranked as being the world’s healthiest country last year, the pandemic has overwhelmed many hospitals and infected thousands of health care workers. One of the reasons COVID-19 is so bad in the country is because nearly 20% of the popular is older than 65. Approximately 370,000 people are housed in Spain’s 5,400 nursing homes.
The majority of Spain’s COVID-19 victims have been older, on average, than those in other countries. Over 65% of the Spanish dead were 80 or older, compared to 50% in Italy in March and 15% in China in February. Infected health care professionals in Spain account for 15& of the country’s total cases, which is the highest percentage currently reported by any country.
In response to the nursing home deaths, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called for the nationalization of all privately-owned nursing homes, which has the potential to help ensure better access as well as adequate staff and equipment. In addition to that, the Defense Ministry is making thousands of phone calls to seniors living alone or in vulnerable situations to assess their health and provide aid as needed.
In some places, regional authorities are attempting to evacuate care homes or take full control of them. In Alcala de Valle, a convoy of ambulances transferred 28 infected residents from the home to an alternative location nearly 80 miles away.
While we do not yet know what could have been done differently to save the lives of many nursing home residents in Spain, it’s clear that a different outcome could have been possible. The Spanish Society of Geriatrics and Gerontology believes inadequate health inspections and the for-profit model many care homes follow contributed to the problem.
While there have not been extreme situations like this in the United States, it is a very real possibility. For example, the Life Care Center in Washington state has seen nearly 40 deaths, so far, related to the coronavirus. News like this is a grim lesson in how the lack of preparation can result in an unnecessary and preventable loss of life.