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Health

Pressure Grows In Connecticut To Allow Court Action Against Care Homes Over COVID Deaths

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More than half of all people in Connecticut who died from COVID-19 in the first wave of the disease lived in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Advocates for the elderly want to know whether someone should be held accountable for those deaths -- so they’re asking Gov. Ned Lamont to stop shielding the homes from legal action. An executive order signed by the governor on April 5 last year holds local long-term care facilities and their staff harmless if someone gets injured or dies under their care during the pandemic -- as long as everyone acted in good faith.

Nora Duncan, state director of AARP Connecticut, says that if that order stands until Lamont’s emergency executive powers run out, nursing homes and assisted living facilities will have enjoyed a year of protection.

“Most facilities have taken extraordinary measures to protect residents, and their staff have been under immense pressure,” she told Connecticut Public Radio. “That being said, it is difficult to understand why we need continued protection from liability when nearly all residents have received the vaccine and most staff have had the opportunity to receive it.”

Duncan supports a legislative effort led by state Sen. Matt Lesser to get more claims of negligence heard in court.

“We would also allow nursing homes to present evidence if they were following advice from public health authorities either in Connecticut or nationally, or if there was a shortage of PPE, or some other factor that limited their ability,” said Lesser, who drafted the bill. “They can present that as evidence in their defense, but if they were negligent, they should be held accountable.”

Lesser’s concern is that some facilities might have made some bad choices to protect their bottom line --decisions that could have facilitated the spread of COVID-19 in their buildings -- and therefore should be held to account by the judicial system.

“Long after PPE became available, I heard from constituents who work in nursing homes that they were not being provided that PPE from their employers,” he said. “I would have to call the nursing home and try to reach the administrator or call the National Guard and get PPE delivered -- I knew that PPE was available, so I can only assume that the reason they weren’t providing it was because they were cutting corners.”

But Matthew Barrett, president of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, believes the focus is on the wrong “bad actor.”

“The bad actor here is the COVID virus and not anything nursing homes have done,” Barrett said.

Barrett’s trade association represents 145 long-term care homes. He says it’s wrong to view the executive order as blanket immunity offered to nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“Even with the limited protections offered under the governor’s executive order, a lawsuit could be brought under a gross negligent standard,” Barrett said.

Barrett believes that because of asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 -- and early issues surrounding testing and the procurement of personal protective equipment -- facilities would win most of the cases brought against them. But defending themselves could be costly.

Lamont was asked at a recent news conference whether he’d consider updating the order.

“That’s one of the things we have under consideration,” he told reporters. “Give me a little time on that if you would.”

Connecticut Public reached out to his office to clarify his stance on the issue but was told officials had no further comment.

As for Lesser’s legislation and whether it’ll get passed, he says, “It’s got legs.”

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