Three months ago, as the novel coronavirus began to gain a foothold in countries across Europe, officials in the UK said they were still confident that the risk to the British public remained low.
By February 25, the World Health Organization said the virus had already killed thousands in China and was spreading through northern Italy, but at the time there were just 13 confirmed cases and no deaths in the UK. While the government ordered hospitals to prepare for an influx of patients, its advice to some of the country’s most vulnerable people — elderly residents of care or nursing homes — was that they were “very unlikely” to be infected.
That guidance would remain in place over the next two-and-a-half weeks, as the number of coronavirus cases in the UK exploded. By the time the advice was withdrawn on March 13 and replaced with new guidance, there were 594 confirmed cases, and it was too late.
By May 1, of the 33,365 total confirmed deaths in England and Wales, at least 12,526 — or 38% — were care home residents, according to the latest estimates from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).
While the UK government has defended its handling of the issue, care home staff and experts placed at least some of the blame for Europe’s highest death toll on the prioritization of hospitals over these facilities. Others have blamed the slow rollout of testing, the government’s alleged pursuit of “herd immunity” (which it denies seeking) and its failure to order a lockdown early enough.
The UK is not alone. Many other nations were slow to respond to the threat at care home facilities, and the consequences have been devastating.
A cleaning crew enters the Life Care Center on the outskirts of Seattle, Washington on March 12.
Researchers based at the London School of Economics (LSE) created the Long-Term Care responses to Covid-19 (LTCcovid) group with its International Long Term Care Policy Network (LTCPN). LTCcovid is a global network of academics and experts in the field who gather and analyze official data from around the world, and found that many countries were seeing high rates of severe infections and deaths in care homes.
Comparing death tolls can be difficult: some countries have separate data covering elderly care homes, while others include facilities for those with disabilities. Some countries do not include in their data those residents who die in hospitals, some have regional variation, and some have no data at all.
Many governments are just starting to record death tolls in care homes — and the figures are staggering.