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"Utter Lack of Accountability" at Some Nursing Homes as COVID Spreads

Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian

More than four in ten deaths from COVID-19 in Shelby County have occurred in nursing homes, which have been hard hit statewide by the pandemic. Now, some families and public officials are wondering whether enough is being done to protect those who are among the most vulnerable to the virus.

This story was produced in partnership with the Daily Memphian and the Institute for Public Service Reporting.

After James Jones, an 85-year-old retired mechanic, was treated at the Regional Medical Center for a seizure in mid-March, he was sent for a brief recovery at Parkway Health and Rehabilitation Center in South Memphis. 

His daughter, Dinette King, says she was told he had been exposed to someone with the coronavirus. She gave approval to have him tested. 

"I said 'sure,' because I can't bring him home if I don't know whether he's got the virus or not," she says. The test was administered on a Friday. On Monday, the results came back positive. 

The next day, her father was found on the floor showing no vital signs. She never had the chance to say goodbye in person. 

Overall, COVID has killed 51 residents in long-term care facilities here, where the virus can spread like wildfire among staff and vulnerable residents. Thirty-three of those deaths come from three nursing homes, including Parkway. 

The Institute for Public Service Reporting analyzed the data and found that these and other hard-hit facilities have two things in common: they are for-profit operations and they have below-average ratings for staffing. 

"The industry has just become so corporatized in the last several years, and we're seeing some of the fallout from that," says Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a resident advocacy group. "Some of them are really just sucking the money out and leaving them dry."

He says for-profit nursing homes, many of them under out-of-state ownership, lack accountability. 

"Over the years, we've seen a number of these larger corporations, even midsized corporations, and they are really operating as an essential business office, rather than operating as a nursing home," he says. "So the thing that really makes a difference quite often in those circumstances is affecting the bottom line."

For weeks now, the 120-bed Parkway facility has had one of the county’s most intense outbreaks with 74 positive cases and eleven deaths. The government website Medicare.gov gives Parkway a rating of just one of five stars for the number of daily nursing hours per resident.

Critics like Mollot say the thin staffs at some nursing homes got even thinner when workers got sick with COVID. He’s unfamiliar with Parkway, but said the austere business practices of some operations create a recipe for disaster.

"It's really striking the utter lack of accountability," he says. "And, meanwhile, those people who are in a very vulnerable position, they can't just walk out and say I'm never going back to this business again, you know, it stinks. They are sitting ducks."

Critics also say government has dragged its feet. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee only recently ordered that the state’s nursing home staff members get tested weekly for COVID.

Meantime, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris says politicians should revisit tort reform, including a 2015 state law protecting nursing home investors from liability.

"That law, in my view, and I’ll only speak for myself, has led to some of the understaffing at nursing homes and the absence of protections at nursing homes," Lee said at a press conference in April.

The management and owners of Parkway didn’t respond to requests for comment. Similarly, the state’s leading nursing home industry group, the Tennessee Health Care Association, would not agree to talk.

Other industry advocates we spoke with said nursing homes are under-funded and under-prioritized by the government. But how the government might intervene in the weeks and months ahead is as uncertain as the pandemic itself.