Coronavirus death toll ‘airbrushing out’ older people dying in care system

Care sector bosses have said daily coronavirus death tolls are “airbrushing out” hundreds of elderly people who have died at care homes.

Charity leaders have warned older people are dying in care homes where workers are facing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and lack of testing.

To keep vulnerable people safe, some care homes have implemented a blanket ban on visitors to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

It comes as England's Chief Medical Officer said he would like to see coronavirus testing increased in care homes.

Roberta Ding's daughter, Julie, has not seen her mother since March 2. Credit: PA

This has been the case for former social worker Julie Ding, 56, who has not been able to see her dying mother for more than a month.

Julie, from Allerton Bywater, West Yorkshire, was a full-time carer of her mother, Roberta Ding, 83, after she was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in 2018.

Her condition rapidly deteriorated and soon she was unable to walk or speak and could only breathe through a tracheostomy with the help of a ventilator.

Julie said her mother was in hospital before the coronavirus outbreak reached the UK and was subsequently taken to a nursing home on March 2.

It was the last time Julie physically saw her mother as she has only been able to contact her through video calls since.

Roberta Ding, from Allerton Bywater, in West Yorkshire, who is now 83 and suffers from motor neurone disease. Credit: PA

Julie is desperate for her mother to return home as she worries Roberta’s condition will worsen and she will die at the nursing home alone.

After her only sibling, Susan, died aged 49 in 2010, Julie has no family other than her mother.

“I made a promise to my mum that I will always be by her side,” she said.

“I’m allowed in when she’s in the last throes of death, the manager will decide.”

Matthew Reed, chief executive of charity Marie Curie, said it should be possible for care homes to allow visitors for people who are dying.

But he added: “The lack of PPE and testing means workers at care homes are not well equipped to support a number of people dying in quick succession.

“The life of a care home worker is just as valuable as people working in intensive care.”

He said the figures released everyday of hospital deaths are “lagging behind the big number” as care home deaths are not part of the daily figures published by the Government.

Mr Reed warned the UK "risk not recognising the human cost of Covid-19".

Care providers are demanding support measures from health secretary Matt Hancock. Credit: PA

The concerns come as it was revealed a care home boss has confirmed 13 residents have now died after suffering coronavirus symptoms.

Care UK said everyone at Stanley Park Care Home in Stanley, County Durham, is “really saddened” after the latest death on Monday morning.

Provisional figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on April 7 showed around one in 14 coronavirus-related deaths in England and Wales could be happening outside hospitals.

In the week ending March 27, for those deaths that were registered with Covid-19 mentioned on the death certificate, the ONS found 38 out of 539 occurred in hospices, care homes or other locations, accounting for 7% of the total.

It was the first time the ONS published a weekly breakdown of coronavirus-related deaths that have happened both in and out of hospital, but these figures are only applicable in England and Wales and have a time lag of several days as they are based on registered death certificates.

At Monday's daily government briefing on the coronavirus outbreak, the Chief Medical Officer for England said he would like to see Covid-19 testing increased in care homes.

Asked if deaths were recorded properly in care home setting, Professor Chris Whitty said: “Everybody who sadly dies, the doctor will make an assessment based on her or his view about what the cause of death is, that’s what the death certificate says in all cases.”

He added: “Doctors take it very seriously and try to make sure that they get as much information to give accurate data.

“One of the things we want to do is to extend the amount of testing of people in care homes as the ability to test ramps up over the next few weeks.

“Because clearly care homes are one of the areas where there are large numbers of vulnerable people and that is an area of risk and therefore we would very much [...] like to have much more extensive testing.”

The UK Government delivered its daily press conference on Easter Monday. Credit: PA

Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, also voiced concerns saying the lack of PPE and testing is leading to Covid-19 “running wild” in care homes.

“The problem is there’s not enough of either,” she told the PA news agency.

“And what there is is going to the NHS, which is the right decision but it is leaving care settings in a difficult position.

“We were underprepared for this, we are playing catch-up on getting enough PPE and testing, I’m wondering if the needs of care homes were taken seriously early on.”

She joined Mr Reed and leaders from Care England, Independent Age and the Alzheimer’s Society in writing a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock demanding a care package to support social care through the pandemic.

A growing number of elderly residents of care homes are dying of Covid-19. Credit: PA

As well as PPE and testing, they are asking for the care package to include palliative and end-of-life care for people dying in the care system, as well as a daily update on the number of deaths.

Care England has estimated there have been nearly 1,000 deaths from coronavirus in care homes, leaving social care as “the neglected front-line”, the letter reads.

Ms Abrahams said: “The current figures are airbrushing older people out like they don’t matter.”

It comes after Mr Hancock said he can guarantee regular coronavirus testing for the care sector.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference on Sunday, Mr Hancock said measures are being taken but the process is “nuanced and complicated”.

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