American tragedy: Number of people dying alone in hospitals skyrockets due to COVID-19

CHICAGO — It’s a horrifying thought, not being able to see your loved one before they pass away. The sad truth of 2020 is that’s what’s happening all over the United States. A recent study finds a dramatic shift in where Americans are spending their final moments. Patients with COVID-19 this year are 12 times more likely to die in a medical facility than patients dying of any cause in 2018. Researchers add that many of these patients are tragically dying alone.

“Where you die is important and reflects end-of-life quality for the patient and the family,” says Northwestern University’s Dr. Sadiya Khan in a media release.

Due to quarantine restrictions during the pandemic, many people have not been able to visit family members in U.S. hospitals. Khan explains this is not just damaging for the patient, but for their loved ones too.

“A loved one dying alone takes a huge mental toll on families,” adds Khan, an assistant professor of preventive medicine in epidemiology. “It impairs the family’s ability to grieve and cope with the loss. For patients, we’ve all thought about how terrible it would be to have to die alone. This is the horror happening to thousands of people in medical facilities where no family member or loved one is able to be present with them during their final moments on earth.”

COVID-19 is taking people away from their homes

Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Northwestern team finds the vast majority of patients dying of coronavirus are not able to spend their final moments in the peace of their own homes.

Location of deaths from COVID‐19 (February 1, 2020‐May 23, 2020) compared to all causes (February 1, 2018‐May 31, 2018) in the United States. (Credit: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society)

From Feb. 1 through May 23, a staggering 91 percent of all COVID-19 deaths occurred in a medical facility or nursing home. Just 5.2 percent of Americans with the virus died at home. Under two percent passed away in hospice care.

This is a seismic shift from where people were passing just two years ago. During the same period in 2018, only 35.7 percent of Americans dying from all causes died in a hospital. Home deaths nearly equaled this total, with 31.1 percent of people spending their last moments in their residence.

For some states, the shifts are even more pronounced. Researchers say Minnesota nursing home deaths due to COVID-19 are up to 60 percent. The study urges states with highly vulnerable populations to keep using PPE (personal protection equipment).

“It’s especially important as nursing homes are reopening to visitors and may be exposing residents, especially in areas where there are increasing rates of cases,” Khan explains.

Preventing patients from dying alone

The study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society says both hospitals and nursing homes also need to invest in more virtual technology. With the threat of infection still high, study authors say end-of-life care is a extremely important. Of course, finding a way to allow families to see each other is a big part of the job.

“We can’t just rely on individual’s iPhones and iPads,” Khan adds. “There is a land line phone in every room, why couldn’t we have a virtual phone in every room or access to face-to-face communication for each patient and their families?”

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