We have seen the news reports about the coronavirus being in nursing facilities and the deaths that it caused. As reported in the New York Times…
“The mortality rate is shocking,” said Mark Parkinson, president and chief executive of the American Health Care Association. He said the death rate might well exceed the 15 percent that had been reported in China for people aged 80 and older.
Sadly, the reason this is “news” is because those deaths are part of a bigger story. The reality is that illnesses circulate throughout nursing facilities and kill the residents regularly. Even when 11 children died in a New Jersey nursing facility, most people didn’t hear about it.
While we are all being advised to avoid cruise ships and large groups, people with significant long term service and support disabilities often have no choice but to go into a nursing facility or other institution where they are kept in tight quarters and always at risk.
It isn’t a small number of folks. Right now, about 2 million people are in nursing facilities and other institutions. Even if there is only a 10% coronavirus mortality rate – well below the 15% death rate reported in China – that would still mean 200,000 people in institutions die. At 15%, the number of dead jumps to 300,000.
American life will change in response to the coronavirus. As part of that transformation, we need to address the fact that disabled and elderly people continue to be forced into nursing facilities and other institutions. There is no doubt that if the residents of the Life Care Center in Washington State or the Wanaque nursing facility in New Jersey were able to be supported independently, they would have been at far less risk of dying.
For a number of years, disability rights activists have been framing the fight for the Disability Integration Act as a fight for Life and Liberty. The outbreak of the coronavirus reminds us that this isn’t just rhetoric. The freedom of people with disabilities – young and old – is literally a matter of life and death.