Vague virus rules blamed as care home deaths soared
By Yannick Hansen and Emery P. Dalesio
Luxembourg long knew that retirement home residents ran a high risk of dying from Covid-19 but mostly left decisions about proper safeguards in the hands of staff running the homes, an investigation released on Monday found.
Recommendations from the family affairs ministry on how to protect residents were unclear and government officials could not enforce them since the ministry, while overseeing the homes, lacked authority over their operations, senior statesman Jeannot Waringo told a packed session of parliament.
Parliament ordered the study led by Waringo in April after Covid-19 swept through the residences established to care for some of society's most fragile members, including an outbreak at an elderly care home in Niederkorn that operators said killed at least two dozen residents.
Elderly residents in nursing and care homes comprised nearly half of all Covid-19 deaths last year as prevention measures fell short, the Luxembourg Times reported in February. During the first six months of the pandemic, which claimed the first Luxembourg death in March 2020, nearly 52% of fatalities involved residents of care homes, this newspaper reported in September.
At the end of their two-month investigation, Waringo and the seven others responsible for it largely avoided assigning responsibility for why Covid-19 cut a deadly path through predictably vulnerable nursing and care homes.
Yet they said the government failed to come up with guidelines for home administrators to protect elderly residents during last summer's lull in infections, at a time that national education officials were already devising a strategy to safely reopen schools last fall, Waringo said.
Home administrators were also confused by the roles of the family ministry and the health ministry, which took a broader role in overseeing the country’s pandemic response, Waringo said. “A lot of homes did not know who to contact”, he said. “Having two oversight ministries confused people”.
Government data show most of the care home deaths occurred since a second wave of the disease hit in November - well after home operators and officials said they took more precautions. By mid-May, months after the country's vaccination campaign gave the elderly both in communal housing and personal homes top priority, the ratio of deaths coming from retirement and nursing home residents had dropped to 43%, Family Affairs Minister Corinne Cahen and Health Minister Paulette Lennart told parliament deputies two months ago.
Nearly 350 residents of 52 nursing and retirement homes died among the 808 fatalities to that point in mid-May, the ministers said.
Claude Muller, a virology expert at the Luxembourg Institute of Health said it was hard to understand why Luxembourg did not better protect the elderly.
"There was a very small ... number of people that were well known to be at high risk, yet they were clearly not sufficiently protected. Then in January/February when vaccination was already available, there were again large clusters in those homes", Muller said, wondering why no lessons were learned.
The death toll in Luxembourg’s care homes was similar to that of neighbouring countries, though clear comparisons were impossible, the report said.
Home administrators were forced to balance between shutting down contact as much as possible between workers and visitors who could carry the contagious virus from outside versus increasing their feelings of isolation, Waringo said. Patient advocacy groups objected after the government banned visitors to care homes during the first wave of the disease in early 2020.
Describing what measures could have limited the death toll “would have been outside the scope of this inquiry”, Waringo said.
Prime Minister Xavier Bettel's government was planning to delay its response to the report's findings until Tuesday, when parliament will debate the topic.