August 5, 2020

Sen. Whitehouse on the Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act

Mr. President, I am grateful to have the chance to follow my friend from Pennsylvania, who has shown such great leadership with respect to healthcare and particularly with respect to the nursing home population. I am delighted to join him to discuss what COVID is doing to the elder Americans who are in our nursing homes and long-term care facilities, because this illness has swept like a savage scythe through those facilities.

In my small State of Rhode Island, 750 residents of long-term care facilities have died of COVID. We just crossed 1,000 deaths statewide, and 750 are at these facilities. If that doesn’t attract the concern of this Senate, something is very wrong with this Senate. Across the country, the death toll in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, just as Senator Casey said, is 62,000 Americans. My dad served for 5 years in the Vietnam conflict. In the decades of the Vietnam conflict, we sustained over 58,000 American military casualties.

That means the death toll in our nursing homes and long-term care facilities–just in COVID, just in these months–is greater than the death toll of our soldiers in Vietnam.

And if that is not enough to attract the attention of the Senate, something is wrong with the Senate.

In Rhode Island, there is a little nursing home–just by way of example–called Hallworth House. Hallworth House is a great little place. It has been operating for half a century. It opened in 1968. It has a five-star rating from CMS. They do a great job.

It was announced that it will permanently close at the end of August due to COVID. It had 51 residents, and by June, 29 had been infected; 12 had died.

Of its staff, 20 were infected and had to be quarantined. It couldn’t survive that. It is closing.

And the stories behind the institutions like Hallworth House are the stories of people like Therese in Lincoln. The Senator from Pennsylvania is amicably disposed to women named Therese. Therese’s mom Germaine is 88 years old. She has Alzheimer’s. She is a resident of a nursing home in nearby Manville, RI. That facility has not allowed visitation since March 11. Therese hasn’t seen her mom since March 11. This is a woman with Alzheimer’s, living in a facility. As a result, her mom’s cognition has declined. The presence of her daughter was part of what kept her active, kept her moving. She used to take her for walks every day.

Now, the best they can do is Skype, and her mom barely recognizes the little image on Skype.

So behind 750 deaths, behind collapsing institutions that have served elderly people for 50 years are these personal stories of broken relationships.

Barry in Narragansett has been married to his wife Dorothy for 46 years. Now he can only see her through Plexiglas and only twice. That is a real cost.

Germaine, 88 years old, not being able to see her daughter; Barry and Dorothy, after 46 years of marriage, separated by Plexiglas, unable to see each other.

Those are small concerns, but you can multiply them across the population of our nursing homes and of our long-term care facilities.

And if that isn’t something that the Senate will care about, then there is something wrong with the Senate.

We have tried to give the Senate something to do, something we can be for. So we have the Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act. It has $20 billion for staffing support, for testing–because there is not enough testing–for personal protective equipment, for the staff who serve, really heroically and tragically underpaid in these circumstances, in these facilities.

It encourages successful practices like cohorting. It provides responses like surge teams. When a place becomes so hit with COVID that the staff are quarantined out, who is going to come in? We were talking about deploying the National Guard in nursing homes. No, we need trained surge teams that provide for those things and data so people learn fast and know what to do to take care of this.

We have a solution, and I hope very much the Senate will care enough to consider our solution in whatever bill we end up beginning to negotiate on.

I will close by talking about what has been called liability protection but is, in fact, corporate negligence amnesty.

I have been around here a little while, and I have been through the immigration debate. And in this building, we heard people talk about children–children who were brought to this country who were innocent of any misconduct. In fact, they were minors. They were, by law, innocent, and they had done no one any harm. Children guilty of no misconduct, innocent who had done no one any harm. And what was the word we heard? “Amnesty.” We can’t have amnesty. There are laws around here that have to be followed–for children who were innocent and had done no one any harm.

What does the corporate negligence amnesty bill do? It gives corporations that are not innocent, that are negligent, that have caused harm, and that have even caused death, amnesty. If that is the standard, when you are small and innocent and a child and have done no harm, then we are going to be outraged at any amnesty for you, at any kindness, but if you are a big corporation and you actually are negligent and as a result of your negligence someone dies of this disease, what is the solution? Amnesty. That is what we will do. We will help our corporate friends.

If that is where this Senate is going to stand, then there is something wrong with this Senate.

Oh, and by the way, this is no small thing. The right to a jury began, really, at about the time of Henry II, in the 12th century, and followed through English common law, through Blackstone’s legendary commentaries, the book that informed the early creation of American law, through to the Declaration of Independence, where the jury was part of the casus belli of our country, and then into our Constitution.

This is an important part of our Anglo-American rule of law tradition, and the fact that we are willing to throw it over the side because big corporations come and say: We can’t bear the indignity of having to be treated equally and fairly in court with these people we are so used to pushing around in legislatures where we have lobbyists and money–that is why we are going to throw out eight centuries of tradition and learning?

Do you want to know how long ago that was? There is a great movie called “Lion in Winter”, a wonderful movie about Henry II. That is when this tradition started, and we are going to throw it out here for corporations that have been so negligent as to cause death and injury?

I yield the floor, and I thank the Senator from Connecticut, my friend, Senator Blumenthal, for his indulgence for that historical exercise.