DRNC Responds to Deplorable Death Toll in NC Facilities

The number of residents in institutions and facilities who are infected and dying from COVID-19 is growing at an alarming rate in North Carolina.1 These deaths far exceed national averages among states who are keeping this data.  As of today, May 4, COVID-19 has killed 430 people in North Carolina. Over half of these deaths, 240, are related to care in facilities. This statistic is staggering and unacceptable. 

Why is the percentage of people dying in North Carolina (NC) facilities so much higher than in other states? Two critical factors are at work: the failure of NC facilities to follow recommendations on infection control, and our state’s overreliance on institutional care. 

Well before COVID-19 arrived in NC, regulators with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) identified troubled facilities that failed to meet infection control standards.2 DHHS documented issues with cleaning and sanitizing medical equipment. Basic yet critical violations were cited, like staff failing to wash hands or change gloves between patients. Despite these violations, those facilities continued to operate, creating a perfect storm for the spread of COVID-19.  

COVID-19 is now in facilities, so infection control practices outlined by the CDC and DHHS are even more important. Yet the number of infections and deaths in these settings clearly indicate that facilities are still not following infection control practices. Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC) is concerned that the state and federal governments are not taking necessary action to ensure facilities follow the recommended practices to keep people safe.  

NC’s overreliance on institutional care has, in large part, created these deadly circumstances. According to DHHS, infections in facilities account for only 19% of COVID-19 cases in NC, but 56% of COVID-19 deaths.3 While DRNC has long opposed and advocated to reduce institutional care, this pandemic has shown another of its dangers. Now, it is unsafe to live in a facility, but residents cannot leave. There are not enough community-based services for children and adults in our state. People have no choice but to receive the support they need in facilities, because of NC’s shocking lack of progress in developing a system of community-based care.  

As North Carolina’s Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agency, DRNC is working vigorously to reduce NC’s overreliance on facilities through advocacy and litigation. We are also actively working to address the life-threatening failures to protect facility residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. DRNC is: 

  • Reaching out to providers and residents to determine what measures are in place to keep people healthy and safe; 
  • Filing complaints with state and federal regulators when we learn about unsafe conditions; 
  • Meeting with NC Department of Health and Human Services officials and recommending additional protections for residents; 
  • Tracking the Department’s guidance to facilities and responses to our complaints; 
  • Identifying gaps and issues for our continued advocacy.  

DRNC will remain vigilant during the COVID-19 pandemic, no matter how long it remains a threat to people with disabilities in our state. We encourage our partners to get involved in these issues and appreciate our supporters who make this crucial work possible. 

Virginia Knowlton Marcus
Chief Executive Officer
Disability Rights North Carolina

[1] Some examples of facilities include assisted living or adult care homes, facilities for people with intellectual/developmental disabilities, psychiatric facilities for children and adults, group homes and other places.

[2] This information can be found on the NC Division of Health Service Regulation’s website under individual surveys of facilities.

[3] Taken from NC DHHS’s dashboard for COVID-19 data, May 1, 2020: https://www.ncdhhs.gov/divisions/public-health/covid19/covid-19-nc-case-count#by-congregate-living