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How Coronavirus Ravaged America's Nursing Homes: 'We've Gone From Long Term Care To Carnage In Five Months'

(CBS Local) -- There are now over 6 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States of America and 183,000 people have died. There are many horrific tragedies that have occurred over the past six months, but one of the worst is how coronavirus decimated many nursing homes across the country.

According to Elaine M. Ryan, AARP Vice President of State Advocacy and Strategy Integration in the Government Affairs Department, more than 70,000 people who were residents or staff from nursing homes have died from COVID-19. On top of that, another 375,000 residents or staff from nursing homes have been infected by the virus.

"The tragedy of loss of life, especially among older Americans and especially those living in nursing homes has been breathtaking," said Ryan in an interview with CBS Local's DJ Sixsmith. "We've gone from long term care to carnage in five months. It's devastating, but it's also been an inspiration to try to do everything we can do to help."

From the beginning of the pandemic, Ryan and her team at AARP were pushing for nursing homes across the nation to be transparent about the number of COVID-19 cases they had. There were also many families that were unable to get in touch with their loved ones or staff at the nursing homes. Ryan heard many stories of families going to extraordinary measures to check in on loved ones.

"In March, the federal government banned all visitors from nursing homes," said Ryan. "We had families renting cherry pickers to be able to lift them to second floor windows of nursing homes, just to peer in to see if their mom was okay. The ban still exists and the people in there are diminishing not only in health, but in spirit because their friends and loved ones can no longer hug them and visit them."

Ryan hopes that nursing homes around the country are working to address the problem of isolation for their residents. One assisted living facility in Texas has put plastic barriers in suites, so families can come visit their loved ones safely. COVID-19 has forced many to reconsider critical aspects of their personal and professional lives and the AARP vice president says it's time to re-examine the future of long care facilities.

"Institutional care like nursing homes are no place to age in this country," said Ryan. "We know that from COVID-19 that nursing homes had shared rooms and in some places in New York and New Jersey, up to four people can share a room. Imagine the spread of infection during that. We know that the structure of nursing homes are inadequate. We know that the compensation for the staff, who show up every day to go into those nursing homes to help, are well below the poverty line. People in nursing homes were not working in one nursing home. They were working in two to three nursing homes in a given day. If they were COVID-19 positive, they were spreading that to hundreds of residents in a given day. We need to do better with compensation for people who work in those nursing homes. More and more we know the quality of who works in those nursing homes were a determining factor in whether or not people lived or died."

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