Care home residents may account for nearly half of coronavirus deaths in Europe, the World Health Organisation said today. 

The WHO’s European director Hans Kluge revealed the staggering figure at a press conference today where he labelled the deaths an ‘unimaginable human tragedy’. 

Kluge said even ‘frail’ older people have a ‘good chance of recovery if they are well-cared for’ but warned that staff were lacking equipment and were often ‘overstretched and underpaid’.  

Nursing home deaths are often missed out of official statistics because a shortage of tests means that residents were not confirmed to have the virus before they died. 

Many countries have banned people from visiting nursing homes, a measure which has made the deaths of elderly relatives even more painful for many.   

Kluge, the WHO director, said today that many people living in care homes were ‘particularly vulnerable to this virus’, which is generally more dangerous to older people.  

‘According to estimates from countries in the European region, up to half of those who have died from Covid-19 were resident in long-term care facilities,’ he said. 

‘This is an unimaginable human tragedy. ‘To the many who are experiencing this loss, my thoughts are with you.’

Kluge said people with disabilities including dementia can be more vulnerable because they may have difficulty following health advice.  

‘Many today are prevented from receiving visits from family and friends. No longer getting the emotional and physical support that such visits provide. Sometimes residents face the threat of abuse and neglect,’ he said. 

‘And yet equally troubling – the way that such care facilities operate, how residents receive care – is providing pathways for the virus to spread. 

‘Even among very old people who are frail and live with multiple chronic conditions – many have a good chance of recovery if they are well-cared for.’

Kluge said the pandemic had ‘shone a spotlight’ on ‘overlooked and undervalued corners of our society’, saying care had often been ‘notoriously neglected’. 

Hailing care workers as the ‘unsung heroes of this pandemic’, he said the ‘dedicated, compassionate people’ working at nursing homes were ‘so often overstretched, underpaid and unprotected’.   

‘We must do all we can to ensure that those workers have PPE and other essential supplies to protect themselves and those they care for,’ Kluge said. 

Demanding ‘appropriate remuneration for the long hours and difficult work they have’, Kluge said there was an ‘urgent need to rethink’ how care homes operate. 

‘This means striking a balance between the requirements of residents and their families, and ensuring that services are run safely and staff are protected and well supported,’ he said. 

During the present crisis, care homes should prepare separate wards or spaces for coronavirus patients even before the first cases occur, he advised.   

‘These measures will help cut the spread of the virus, and allow for the managed opening once again of such homes to families and visitors,’ he said. 

‘From now on, quality, resourced, strong and sustainable care systems that prioritise people’s needs and dignity must be our gold standard,’ he said. 

‘Commitment from the highest levels of government, across every section of our society is needed.’ 

Care home deaths mean that the official tallies kept by many European governments are likely to be too low.  

France releases figures for care home deaths – 8,104 deaths on the premises of care homes with another 2,599 in hospital – but even these are likely to be incomplete. 

In Italy, authorities are investigating possible malpractice at 13 nursing homes in Milan after claims that staff were prevented from wearing masks.  

Spanish troops have been sent to disinfect buildings, and on one occasion found relatives living in squalor among the bodies of suspected coronavirus victims.

There are fears that hundreds of care home deaths in Catalonia alone could inflate the Spanish death toll enormously.

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