AP used data analysis and family narratives to understand the surge of “excess deaths” among U.S. long-term care residents not infected with COVID-19.

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James Gill, shown in an April 17, 2020 photo provided by his daughter. He died in a nursing home on June 12.

June Linnertz via AP

AP has revealed that a quiet surge in nursing home deaths — from causes other than COVID-19 — is attributable to neglect and isolation in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. An AP team documented heartbreaking examples across the country, based on an exclusive expert analysis that estimates the number of non-COVID “excess deaths” in U.S. nursing homes, above and beyond what is normal, could top 40,000 since March.

National writer Matt Sedensky and investigative reporter Bernard Condon, both based in New York, began brainstorming after seeing broader stories  suggesting that the nation’s so-called excess deaths — more people dying this year than in a normal year — were due largely to the pandemic. Their question: What was the extent and cause of excess deaths specifically in nursing homes?

They sought the answer through an authority on nursing home deaths who analyzed federal data for AP and estimated that for every two residents who were dying of COVID-19, another one was dying of causes unrelated to the virus. On top of the 90,000 dead from coronavirus, he said, there were another 40,000 non-COVID-19 excess deaths since the pandemic broke out. He suspected that a big part of the reason was that staffs, already stretched thin by the virus, were not providing enough care to those who weren’t infected.

To check that, AP’s team went to state nursing home ombudspersons who said they had been flooded with complaints from family members about loved ones who were lucky enough to escape infection but died horrible deaths anyway, with unchanged diapers, bedsores to the bone, and severe infection, starvation and dehydration. They also spoke out about loved ones who succumbed not to neglect but to the effects of being isolated during the pandemic, a spiral of depression and despair that doctors list as “failure to thrive.”

On a parallel track, Raleigh-based video journalist Allen Breed interviewed a family in North Carolina, and coordinated on-camera interviews of experts by Federico Narancio in Washington and Haven Daley in San Francisco, and an interview of a grieving daughter in New York by Robert Bumsted that became the focal point of the package. Portraits from photographers Frank Franklin II in New York and Jim Mone in Minnesota, and graphics by Marshall Ritzel rounded out the coverage.

The text story and video piece were among the most widely viewed on the AP News app on the day of publication. The story also scored prominent play on major websites as PBS, MSN and The Washington Post, and on newspaper front pages. One AP tweet alone was retweeted nearly 3,000 times. After the story ran, an advocacy group for nonprofit nursing homes issued a statement saying this should push federal lawmakers to approve another round of stimulus to allow homes to hire more workers.

For exposing a grim consequence of the pandemic affecting an already vulnerable population, the team of Sedensky, Condon and Breed earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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