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COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire through the nation’s nursing homes.

Already, more than 56,000 residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19. Based on the last data available from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, nearly half the deaths in West Virginia have been related to nursing homes. They account for more than 44% of U.S. coronavirus deaths, even though less than 1% of Americans live in nursing homes. This is a national disgrace.

To date, Congress has passed four bills to address the devastating effects of coronavirus on Americans. Yet, these bills barely touch on the crisis raging in long-term care facilities. With only a few weeks until the district work period in August, what will it take for Congress to take meaningful action to protect nursing home residents?

For five months, nursing homes have been a hotbed for the virus — yet basic precautions to protect residents and staff are still not in place. AARP has heard gut-wrenching accounts from thousands of family members worried about their loved ones in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

It’s time for lawmakers to come together to pass a bipartisan COVID-19 response package with dedicated funding and five key policies to protect seniors living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

  • Ensure regular, ongoing testing and adequate personal protective equipment.
  • Create transparency focused on daily public reporting of cases and deaths in facilities, communication with families when loved ones are discharged or transferred and accountability for how billions of dollars in federal funding is spent.
  • Require access to facilitated virtual visitation.
  • Provide better care for residents through adequate staffing, oversight and access to in-person formal advocates, called long-term care ombudsmen.
  • Stop attempts to provide blanket immunity for long-term care facilities related to COVID-19.

The hopeful news is that legislation has been introduced in Congress that will help save the lives of nursing home residents. However, what remains missing is the will to make these older Americans and their families a priority.

Our elected leaders must act now to protect West Virginia’s long-term care residents and staff, before the death toll rises even higher.

It is literally life or death.

Jane Marks is the president

of AARP West Virginia, which serves more than 300,000 members age 50 and older.