OKLAHOMA CITY — An advocate said it would be “madness” to even consider reopening nursing homes to visitors as the number of resident deaths continues to mount and the state struggles to test residents and staff.

Wes Bledsoe, a nursing home reform advocate who lives in Oklahoma City, said some state lawmakers seem to be unconcerned about protecting Oklahoma’s oldest and most vulnerable residents from COVID-19.

“Who cares if all the old people die? It will save Medicare a lot of money,” Bledsoe said one lawmaker recently told him. The advocate did not identify the legislator.

Since March, nearly 975 nursing home and long-term care facility patients and staff have tested positive for COVID-19. More than 100 have died.

Despite the nearly 11 percent mortality rate, state Rep. Lundy Kiger, R-Poteau, is calling on the governor to press federal officials to issue guidelines authorizing a “soft reopening” of Oklahoma’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities. He thinks visitors should once again be allowed inside.

“If we can provide guidance for businesses opening up again, surely we can find ways for family members to get the opportunity by June 1, 2020, to physically see and talk to their loved ones,” Kiger said in a statement Monday.

Kiger said the state’s lockdown prohibits face-to-face visits, which are the only way to ensure proper care of loved ones.

“Everyone is totally on board with being safe and taking precautions with our most vulnerable population who are living in assisted living or nursing home facilities,” he said in a statement. “But the current rules … offer no end in sight for those people who are trapped away from their families and the world. These people are not being allowed visits by their families and not being able to see their loved ones presents a mental health concern that perhaps is even worse than the pandemic itself.”

Some nursing home operators, though, are not supporting the plan and noted they want to protect their residents’ lives.

“Oklahoma should not even consider opening up our nursing homes until we have tested every nursing home resident and staffer and evaluated those results,” said Kimberly Green, the chief operating officer with Diakanos Group, which owns and operates several homes in the state.

“The bottom line is we need to tread extremely carefully when it comes to reopening nursing homes because our residents are uniquely vulnerable to the disease,” she said in a statement. “There are compassionate steps we can take to facilitate communication with loved ones, like arranging visits through windows or outside with proper distancing. We should not rush to open our doors back up to visitors as it will inevitably bring this killer into our facilities.”

Bledsoe also thinks it’s “appalling” to even consider reopening nursing homes with such a high mortality rate. He said it makes no sense.

“Opening up, removing restrictions. How else can you describe it other than one word — madness,” Bledsoe said.

He said Gov. Kevin Stitt’s ongoing plan to take a month to test all 42,000 residents and staff at nursing home and long-term care facilities once is nothing more than a gesture.

The state needs to frequently test residents to accurately monitor the spread, Bledsoe said. Until it takes minutes instead of days to get the results back for visitors, staff and residents, nobody should be allowed inside to protect the most vulnerable Oklahomans, he said.

Bledsoe said he knows how hard it is to be away from loved ones, but state leaders need to do everything possible to protect the elderly and vulnerable from the deadly virus.

“It is a gut-wrenching issue,” he said. “There’s no question about it. But right now when we have thousands of Americans who are dying from the virus and there is no cure, (we shouldn’t) reopen until we can have rapid-detection testing that we can have results in 5 to 10 minutes.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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