Georgia senior care group pushes for statewide mask mandate

Susan Merritt, left, visits her mother, Rosie Gamel, in August at A.G. Rhodes’ Wesley Woods location. A divider is used to allow families to visits residents as safely as possible during the coronavirus pandemic. (HANDOUT)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

For nursing homes and other senior care facilities in Georgia, it’s been a sobering month as the coronavirus rages with no end in sight.

This past week, Georgia topped 2,000 deaths among long-term care residents, although the actual number is likely higher than the official count. In addition, a confidential White House coronavirus task force report that surfaced on Tuesday revealed that roughly one in four of the state’s nursing homes had at least one COVID-19 case — more than double the percentage across the nation.

That report, which reflected data for the second week of August, also noted that the percentage of Georgia facilities with infections had been on the rise from the week before and said that more needed to be done to protect residents and staff in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Against this backdrop, one of the state’s leading senior care trade groups now is calling on Gov. Brian Kemp to implement a statewide mask mandate, something he has resisted even as AARP reports that 34 other states have implemented mask requirements.

LeadingAge Georgia, a group of nonprofit and faith based providers, sent Kemp a letter Wednesday urging the mandate — the second letter from the group this month. It also issued an alert to its members encouraging them to write the governor to push for a mandate.

“As long as community spread is uncontrolled, older adults and those who serve them are at risk,” the alert to members says.

Camilla White visits her mother Lillian Barber, 90, from outside seeing her through the window while touching fingertips through the glass at Cottage Landing Assisted Living in April in Carrollton. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com

The group’s entrance into the mask mandate debate underscores the growing sense of frustration many providers feel as they try to protect their residents as the virus spreads rapidly in the communities that surround their facilities. They are also concerned of the toll on older Georgians, particularly those in nursing homes and other senior care settings, as stay-at-home orders and lockdowns take on an air of permanency.

Kemp’s office said he has no plans to issue a statewide mask mandate but noted that his current executive order requires nursing home staff to wear masks.

“Given the speed and severity of potential coronavirus spread in these facilities, it remains our top priority to do everything possible to keep the virus from infecting the most vulnerable,” said Cody Hall, Kemp’s press secretary.

The governor also has encouraged Georgians to wear masks and this month, for the first time, allowed local governments to issue mask mandates after battling them for months on the issue.

Toll of isolation

When the coronavirus emerged as a threat in March, one of the first actions many homes took to combat the virus was to end family visitations. That became formalized as Kemp issued the first of his executive orders in March to restrict visitors to nursing homes and other senior care facilities.

These drastic measures were necessary as homes struggled to secure testing and protective equipment and maintain staffing as the virus ravaged facilities across the state. But as weeks turned into months, even homes that have been able to contain and minimize infections have had to combat the emotional toll the threat of the virus has had on staff and residents. Many see the cost of the social isolation, loneliness and depression in too many residents as they continue to have to eat in their rooms and avoid contact with families or other residents.

ExploreKemp lashes out at coverage of White House COVID report critical of Georgia

Senior care officials have come to the realization that unless community spread is curtailed, their residents could be facing additional months of lockdowns.

Board members of LeadingAge Georgia met late last month and decided they needed to do more to advocate for the 127,000 older Georgians they serve.

“We’re trying to make the community safer so our folks can access the community again,” said Chris Keysor, chair of LeadingAge’s state board.

Keysor is president and CEO of Lenbrook, a continuing care community in Buckhead that serves more than 400 residents in its independent living, assisted living and nursing home settings. He said the mental and emotional impact on residents is real. He said it was dispiriting for many of his residents to watch the surge of cases across the state this summer and realize the road ahead.

“Everything about their life has changed,” he said.

The task force report, first published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday, recommends a statewide mask mandate for counties with 50 or more active cases, a threshold that would include most counties in Georgia.

The report noted that Georgia was still in the “red zone” where federal officials recommend more restrictions because of the number of new cases and the test positivity rate. While the report noted Georgia had made some modest gains in combating the virus, it said more needed to be done to mitigate community spread.

Gov. Brian Kemp voiced his frustration with coverage of a recent coronavirus report, during a press conference at the Georgia State Capitol building on Wednesday, August 19, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Kemp pushed back forcefully at the AJC’s story on the report and noted that it was from data earlier in the month. He and his aides highlighted recent figures showing a 26% decline in the rolling average of new cases over the past week and a 20% decline in the hospitalization rate since the state hit a recent peak at the end of July.

He said he and other state leaders review the recommendations from the task force, but that doesn’t mean they are going to implement every recommendation.

“This is what’s so frustrating about pandemic politics and leaked reports,” he said.

LeadingAge Georgia says it is not trying to step into a political fight. Officials said their board members feel the community spread will not be brought under control until masks are worn universally across the state. An earlier letter from the group’s president Ginny Helms on Aug. 3 to the governor called the issue “the ethically right thing to do.”

The Georgia Health Care Association, the state’s largest professional group representing nursing homes and assisted living facilities, has chosen not to get involved in the push for a statewide mask mandate. The group issued a news release on Thursday saying it had joined the Georgia Hospital Association’s #MaskUpGeorgia campaign that encourages citizens to wear masks in public.

“We clearly support the use of masks in the community,” said Tony Marshall, the GHCA president and CEO.

Nearly 12,000 residents in the state’s nursing homes, assisted living facilities and large personal care homes have tested positive for the virus since March, according to state data. There are currently more than 2,200 active cases. More than 6,000 staff members at Georgia’s facilities have tested positive.

ExploreFamilies desperate to resume visiting loved ones in nursing homes

“It’s almost impossible to trace where these cases are coming from,” said Deke Cateau, a LeadingAge board member and CEO of A.G. Rhodes. “It leads to frustration as the provider. It’s frustrating that we don’t see the end of this. We cannot predict the end of this.”

It’s an issue of right to access, similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Terry Barcroft, president and CEO of Wesley Woods Senior Living, a nonprofit that operates independent living, assisted living and nursing homes.

Barcroft, who serves on the LeadingAge board, said the months of sheltering in place has effectively meant many older Georgians have essentially been imprisoned in their homes because it’s not safe to move about the community.

“I believe Georgia’s leaders have demonstrated their desire to keep Georgian’s safe, but we need more,” she said.

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