Pence promised gear for nursing homes. Some of what arrived was subpar, advocates say

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Federal shipments of protective gear touted by Vice President Mike Pence as part of an effort to provide vital support to the nation’s nursing homes beleaguered by COVID-19 have at times included flimsy cloth masks and “trash bag”-like gowns that fail to meet even basic infection control standards, according to several groups that represent elder facilities.

Nursing home officials described equipment that was difficult to use or did not serve its intended purpose, such as masks with snapped elastic straps and gowns with no holes for arms or heads, even as Pence posed for camera crews unloading boxes of the supplies.

“We are going to continue to make sure that people that are caring for the most vulnerable — today, tomorrow and every day in the future — have the resources and the support that they need,” Pence told reporters during a delivery in Orlando, Florida, last month.

In request to an inquiry from ABC News, a Trump administration official said criticism was overblown and that the number of complaints about equipment were small and often inflated as many facilities are receiving different types of equipment than they typically work with.

The supplies are being shipped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency directly to nursing homes as part of an administration initiative beginning in May. FEMA has issued reports that it has made 14,965 shipments of protective equipment in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico since the effort began. Officials there said they planned to deliver seven days’ worth of much-needed gear to every nursing home in the nation.

FEMA issued a statement Saturday saying the equipment it has shipped meets health care standards, “but may not be familiar to the nursing homes as it may differ from some of the [equipment] they are already receiving.”

“The fact that these nursing homes typically use other types [of equipment] … does not warrant this type of scrutiny from the media,” the FEMA statement says, adding that the agency is trying to arrange instructional videos for those homes that are finding the equipment difficult to use.

The problems with the federal supplies have generated attention. News of the subpar protective equipment was first reported by Roll Call and The Wall Street Journal.

Several organizations representing large numbers of nursing homes confirmed to ABC News that they have been hearing the reports that some of the FEMA equipment fails to meet basic health care standards. LeadingAge, the association of nonprofit providers of aging services, including many nursing homes, said in a statement Thursday they had reports of cloth masks that are “virtually useless.”

According to LeadingAge, nursing home reported receiving gowns that were “like putting a trash bag on” and with “no real place for your hands to come out.”

With such a high risk of infection, most facilities require their staff to use N-95 respirator masks, which offer more protection than cloth ones.

In an initial statement to ABC News, FEMA said that the current shipments of personal protective equipment sent to nursing facilities did not include N-95 masks. The agency added that any cloth masks were actually provided to nursing homes as part of a separate initiative organized by the Department of Health and Human Services.

A spokesperson for HHS said that the cloth face masks shipped by the agency are part of a separate initiative and are not meant to be used as protective equipment, but are intended to be used for non-health care personnel and visitors.

Beth Martino, the senior vice president of public affairs for the American Health Care Association, which also represents nursing homes, said her group also has been hearing complaints about the federal shipments, which she noted were insufficient to help most facilities for any sustained period of time.

“We hope that those issues can be addressed,” Martino said.

Carole Herman, the president of the advocacy organization Foundation Aiding The Elderly, criticized FEMA for its failure to provide proper products for vulnerable seniors.

“For FEMA to provide inferior protective equipment to our most helpless and vulnerable citizens is unconscionable and the provider of such equipment should be sanctioned for this,” said Herman. “Looks like FEMA is not monitoring the quality of the products they are purchasing during this pandemic. Shame on FEMA and shame on the company that sent out shoddy equipment.”

LeadingAge CEO Katie Smith Sloan wrote a letter Thursday to Pence demanding an investigation into reports of poorly made and ineffective equipment.

“It is unclear if this is a failure of leadership, logistics, communications or all three. But for older Americans, the corona-virus is still ongoing,” Smith Sloan wrote. “I implore you to investigate these reports seriously and thoroughly — and take swift action to ensure they can trust the federal government to serve their interests.”

FEMA said Saturday that officials there “have met with Leading Age Association to discuss these shipments and address their concerns.” The agency said all of its provided supplies have met standards outlined by the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, but many nursing homes have reported that the supplies provided have left them concerned about meeting infection control standards.

For months, nursing homes have sounded alarms about their lack of access to protective equipment as their residents have proven to be some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the federal agency responsible for oversight of nursing homes, currently reports that over 31,000 nursing home residents have died as a result of COVID-19. An ABC News count of state-by-state data indicates the number is likely far higher since the federal count started well into the outbreak and did not include some types of long-term senior care facilities. In a mid-May survey, ABC News found 36,000 nursing home deaths.

In response to growing concerns about the disproportionate impact of the virus on nursing home residents earlier this year, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid’s administrator, Seema Verma, announced that the agency would be prioritizing infection control inspections.

It is not clear whether the agency could potentially cite, or even fine, nursing homes for using improper equipment — even if it was supplied in a relief package from a federal agency.

Since April, Verma has been touting the federal shipments as one way her agency is helping to combat the growing crisis in these facilities.

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