The health system will "crumble" if the nursing home sector is not supported, the chief executive of Nursing Homes Ireland has said.
The sector has 25,000 beds, or more than twice the number of acute hospital beds in the health system, and is facing into a huge challenge if the feared surge in coronavirus infections occurs, Tadhg Daly said.
He said he was “very confident” that Ireland as a society would not countenance the type of situation that allegedly happened in Spain, where suspected cases of infected nursing home residents being abandoned are being investigated.
“The idea that people would just walk out on residents, to my mind that is not going to happen,” Mr Daly said.
The private and voluntary nursing home sector cares for approximately 25,000 residents in 500 homes, with a further 4,000 elderly and vulnerable people living in HSE-run homes.
Figures released on Thursday showed nine clusters of coronavirus infection in nursing homes, where staff have to have close contact with the people they are caring for.
Mr Daly said that each case of infection or suspected infection creates additional costs as the resident is isolated and special staffing procedures are put in place.
The sector is taking on additional staff, incentivising staff who are considering moving to the HSE, which is recruiting heavily, and paying higher prices for essential materials that are in high demand, including personal protection equipment, he said.
An unintended knock-on effect of the special pay and social welfare measures that have been put in place by the Government, he said, was that it had reduced the incentive for people to take up employment in nursing homes.
Mr Daly is to meet the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, on Monday to discuss increased financial support that is likely to be in the "hundreds of millions" of euro.
The actual cost of dealing with outbreaks of the virus in the nursing home system will not be known until they occur, so a more precise figure is not possible, he said.
Nursing home operators conduct their own negotiations with the State, but Mr Daly wants the Minister to agree on the principles that will apply as the sector faces into the challenges ahead.
The private nursing home sector has a lot of single, ensuite rooms, which would aid in isolating people. Some homes are looking at creating separate areas or wings where residents with the virus, or awaiting test results, would live.
The homes are dealing with end-of-life situations as sensitively as possible and usually allow at least one family member be present, Mr Daly said.
“Nursing home staff are family too,” he said. “They really get to know the residents. I’m proud of the sector and proud to be leading it at this challenging time.”
The State’s nursing homes look after the most vulnerable people in society, said Vicky McDwyer, the managing director of Esker Lodge nursing home in Cavan. “I would say we are in the trenches. The State needs to have our backs.”
She said she was particularly concerned that her nursing home would have supplies of personal protection equipment guaranteed by the HSE, as her stock would quickly run out if a resident became infected with the virus.
Susan McLaverty, human resources director with the Trinity Care group, which operates seven nursing and rehabilitation centres in Leinster, said special measures have been put in place to bolster morale among the staff and the residents.
The group has 470 residents and 510 staff, and has not experienced a case of coronavirus. As with all nursing homes in the State, family visits are on hold as a result of the crisis.
The residents are just the same as everyone, she said. “Some are frightened, others are giving out because they can’t get their hair done.”
“If we lose someone in a nursing home, we lose a friend. I don’t even want to think about it, what might happen . . . This is personal for people. We will do everything we can to fight against the virus getting in. Our infection controls are really high.”