Bodies of coronavirus victims found in Spanish nursing homes

Spanish army troops disinfecting nursing homes have found, to their horror, some residents living in squalor among the infectious bodies of people suspected of dying from the new coronavirus, authorities said Tuesday. 

Discovery comes as nursing homes worldwide struggle to protect their residents

A nurse looks out from a window next to a banner reading, 'Everything is going to be all right,' in Spanish inside the Usera Seniors' Centre nursing home in Madrid. On Tuesday, Spanish soldiers disinfecting the building found residents living among the bodies of people suspected of dying from COVID-19. (Manu Fernandez/The Associated Press)

Spanish army troops disinfecting nursing homes have found, to their horror, some residents living in squalor among the potentially infectious bodies of people suspected of dying from the new coronavirus, authorities said Tuesday.

Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles said the elderly residents were "completely left to fend for themselves, or even dead, in their beds." She said the discovery over the weekend included several nursing homes, but she did not name them or say how many bodies were found.

A judicial probe into the horrific discovery was opened Tuesday as Spain announced a record one-day jump of nearly 6,600 new coronavirus infections, bringing the overall total to more than 39,600. The number of deaths also leaped by a record 514, to almost 2,700, second only to Italy and China.

As bodies piled up, Madrid took over a public skating rink as a makeshift morgue after the city facility overflowed. To date, 1,535 people have died in the hard-hit Spanish capital, more than half of the national total. The capital region has over 12,350 infections.

"This is a tough week," Dr. Fernando Simon, head of Spain's health emergency centre, told a daily news briefing.

A general view of the Usera Seniors' Centre. Due to the danger COVID-19 poses the elderly, a woman whose 97-year-old mother lives at the nursing home said she and her family 'are bracing ourselves for the worst possible outcome.' (Manu Fernandez/The Associated Press)

Relatives of elderly people and retirement home workers expressed growing concern about the situation at the centres.

"With everything that is happening with the coronavirus, this was a ticking bomb," said Esther Navarro, whose 97-year-old mother with Alzheimer's lives at the Usera Seniors' Centre in Madrid, where soldiers found some of the bodies.

"Now we are bracing ourselves for the worst possible outcome," she told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

A worker at the nursing home said at least two bodies had to remain in the home for a day before funeral workers, who are working around the clock, arrived to take them away.

"We are very saddened, because the residents are almost like our own relatives due to the time we spend with them," the worker, Jose Manuel Martin, told Cadena SER radio.

Pedro Nunez said his father-in-law, Zoilo Patino Lara, died at the nursing home from the virus on Saturday, although he was never diagnosed or taken to a hospital when symptoms appeared. The man — in his 80s and with advanced Alzheimer's — was not removed until Sunday despite Nunez's repeated calls to funeral home workers.

Nursing homes worldwide at risk

Domusvi, the private company contracted by the Madrid regional government to run the Usera nursing home, confirmed that two residents died there over the weekend. A company spokesperson, who declined to give her name, blamed the delay on funeral homes that failed to come quickly to take away the bodies.

While most people suffer only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever or coughing, from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, for older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause far more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Nursing homes worldwide have been especially hard hit. In the United States, several facilities have seen unusually high death tolls, and federal officials found that staff members who worked while sick at multiple long-term care facilities contributed to the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable elderly in the Seattle area.

In this March 13, 2020, file photo, a nurse works in the room of a patient who has tested positive for COVID-19 at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

On Monday, federal regulators gave the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., three weeks to address the serious infractions that have been linked to the deaths of at least 37 residents. The nursing home failed to identify and manage sick residents and failed to notify health authorities in a way that placed residents in "immediate jeopardy," regulators found.

Besides Washington state, burgeoning outbreaks at nursing homes in Illinois, New Jersey and elsewhere in the U.S. have underscored long-running problems in the industry. As in Spain, as well as in Italy, France and elsewhere in Europe, among the biggest problems has been a critical staffing shortage. 

In Spain, the government announced last week that it would take over control of senior-care facilities from private companies and, as part of an unprecedented aid package, set aside 300 million euros (roughly $469 million Cdn) for adding additional social workers and caretakers.

Members of the Military Emergencies Unit (UME) carry out a general disinfection at the Amavir residence for the elderly in Madrid on Monday, amid a national lockdown to fight the spread of COVID-19. (Oscar del Pozo/Getty Images)

Although Spanish households have traditionally included three generations living under one roof, nursing homes have mushroomed across the country over the past two decades, with multinationals and investment funds entering the lucrative business. According to Spain's official scientific research body, CSIC, there were 373,000 people in more than 5,400 nursing homes across the country in 2019.

Miguel Vazquez, the president of Pladigmare, an association that fights for better conditions in Spain's nursing homes, said the coronavirus pandemic has forced a spotlight on the lack of personnel and resources that the wave of profit-seeking private investors has brought to the business of running the facilities.

"Spain has turned a right to being properly cared for, as enshrined in our laws, into a business that benefits from saving costs," Vazquez said, adding that private facilities have been even more opaque than usual since authorities trying to halt the spread of the coronavirus closed the residences to visitors earlier this month.

"Now that relatives can't get in, we don't really know what's going on there," he said.

The situation was even more dire in the Spanish capital, he said, where 92 per cent of some 400 nursing homes are privately owned or managed.

The head of AETE, which represents the country's largest for-profit nursing home businesses, said that criticism for "localized problems" should not be extended to the whole industry, which he said has been urging authorities to provide additional protective gear for weeks.

Jose Cubero also said that overburdened hospitals in Madrid were rejecting patients with COVID-19 from nursing homes.

"We provide assistance but we are not health-care facilities. The elderly also have the right to be treated in hospitals," Cubero said.