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For nursing home residents and their families, the pandemic has made the 2020 election personal

The pandemic’s devastating effect on older Americans could make it harder for President Trump to win re-election, according to new polling and interviews.
Image: President Donald Trump; Joe Biden; and a photo of a nursing home patient being wheeled into a hospital.
A new AARP poll showed Trump losing his advantage with voters ages 65 and older: In six battleground states, Biden was either virtually tied with Trump or ahead by a large margin in that group. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Rose Konecky has been able to see her 80-year-old father only once since March, when his assisted living facility near Fort Worth, Texas, stopped regular visits because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Her father, who has Alzheimer’s disease, can’t understand why his family has stopped coming to see him. “He doesn’t remember — all he knows is that we really don’t come and visit. It’s really sad,” she said.

Konecky had already been planning to support Joe Biden in November. But her family’s wrenching experience had made her vote more urgent.

“It’s made it much more of an emotional choice. Every night before I go to bed, I write postcards to voters,” Konecky, 38, who blames the Trump administration for failing to contain the virus, said. “The pandemic is one of these issues where the politics become personal — to an extreme extent.”

The fallout from the virus is only one of the headline issues that voters are weighing. But the pandemic’s devastating effect on older Americans could make it harder for President Donald Trump to win re-election, according to new polling in swing states, which found that older voters are broadly worried about contracting the virus and more likely to trust Biden to manage the pandemic.

In more than a dozen interviews conducted by NBC News, mostly with residents of swing states, voters across the political spectrum expressed concern about the effect of the virus on their personal health and their families, especially relatives in long-term care facilities. While many of these voters blamed Trump for mismanaging the pandemic, others said they thought state leaders were at fault for the deadly toll of the coronavirus on nursing homes and on the country at large.

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Nursing homes have been at the epicenter of the pandemic: More than 76,000 deaths from Covid-19 are linked to the nation’s long-term care facilities, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation — nearly 40 percent of the coronavirus deaths in the United States. As the virus continues to spread, many facilities are still restricting in-person visits, keeping residents separated from their loved ones. Staff members at these facilities continue to be exposed to the virus and worry that they aren’t adequately protected.

At the same time, Trump has continued to downplay the risks of the virus — even as his administration has stepped up its efforts to send rapid tests, funding and personal protective equipment to nursing homes — and he blames state leaders for failing to protect long-term care facilities.

A new AARP poll showed Trump losing his advantage with voters ages 65 and older: In six battleground states — Florida, Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Biden was either virtually tied with Trump or ahead by a large margin in that group.

It is the latest poll to show Biden’s growing inroads with senior voters, who played a critical part in Trump’s winning 2016 coalition. Four years ago, Americans 65 and older favored the president by 7 points, NBC News exit polls found. Trump’s lead with those voters has since disappeared, according to recent polling conducted by NBC News/Marist College in Pennsylvania and Florida.

The pandemic is “a huge part of that shift,” said Amy Levin, a partner at Benenson Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm that conducted the AARP poll with a Republican firm. The survey found that more than half of likely voters ages 50 and older said they were worried about contracting the virus, which is more likely to kill older people. In all six battleground states, voters said they trusted Biden more than Trump to “protect Americans over 50, especially in nursing homes, from coronavirus,” while also giving the former vice president high marks for protecting Social Security and Medicare.

“When bad things happen, the person in charge typically shoulders the responsibility,” said Bob Ward, a Republican pollster who conducted a similar survey for AARP in five states with competitive Senate races. “Whether or not they’re blaming this specific administration, they’re worried.”

Image: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in New York
Medical technicians wheel a man out of the Cobble Hill Health Center nursing home in Brooklyn, N.Y., during the coronavirus outbreak in April 2020.Lucas Jackson / Reuters file

Jane Delsordo, 85, began experiencing respiratory problems in March that didn’t subside for three months. She was never diagnosed with the coronavirus but suspects she may have had it.

“I’m in a very vulnerable group,” Delsordo, a retired hospital administrator who lives in senior housing in the Philadelphia suburbs, said. “I’m affected just by everything that’s going on.” She is planning to vote for Biden, citing the pandemic as a major factor, and now talks about the election with her neighbors, her family members and anyone else who will listen.

“At 85, you don’t get a chance to see a lot of people. But anyone I get a chance to talk about it, I do,” she said.

The concern among older Americans about the pandemic, however, doesn’t necessarily translate to a political advantage for Biden.

Michael Bitterice, 77, who lives northeast of Pittsburgh, describes the pain older relatives and friends have experienced from social isolation during the pandemic. “It’s been devastating for the old folks,” he said. “But I understand you have to be careful, they are particularly susceptible.”

Bitterice doesn’t blame Trump for the impact of the pandemic on nursing homes or the broader population, instead faulting state leaders for putting the country at risk.

He pointed to New York’s requirement for nursing homes to accept recovering Covid-19 patients from hospitals — a directive from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who feared that hospitals would be overwhelmed. (New York reversed its policy in May after a public outcry.)

“They funneled sick people into the nursing homes,” said Bitterice, who voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in 2016 and is now planning to vote for Trump. “The government closest to people bears the most responsibility — the federal government was never intended to be a nanny.”

Another Trump voter, Elaine Atwell, 79, is especially afraid that her ailing, immunocompromised husband will contract the virus. But she believes that the official death toll is inflated and blames state leaders, not the president, for the toll the virus has taken on nursing homes.

“Each state is responsible more than the president,” Atwell, who lives in central Pennsylvania, said. “The president can’t be in every place and do everything.”

The federal government has oversight over most nursing homes, since they accept federal dollars through Medicare and Medicaid, and has issued guidance for protecting residents from Covid-19. But states are responsible for conducting inspections to ensure the nursing homes comply with both federal and state laws, and have established policies for visitation and testing amid the pandemic. States play an even bigger role in overseeing assisted living centers, which are not subject to federal oversight.

Lori Spencer visits with her mother, Judie Shape, through a window and on the phone at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., on March 17, 2020. The Seattle-area nursing home was the center of one of the earliest coronavirus outbreaks.Ted S. Warren / AP file

Trump has attacked Cuomo for failing to contain the pandemic in New York, where more than 6,600 nursing home residents have died. In late August, the Justice Department sent letters to four Democratic-led states — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan — asking for data to determine whether state requirements to send Covid-19 patients to nursing homes violated the law, adding that the policies “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.” (New York released a report concluding that infected staff, not Covid-19 transfers from hospitals, were responsible for the outbreaks in nursing homes, but state lawmakers from both parties are calling for further investigation.)

The Trump campaign defended the president’s efforts to protect older Americans.

“America’s seniors have a champion in President Trump, who staunchly defends Social Security and Medicaid and has taken decisive action to keep nursing home residents safe as part of his unprecedented response to the coronavirus pandemic,” Samantha Zager, a spokeswoman for the campaign, said in a statement.

The Trump campaign also criticized Biden for praising Cuomo’s response to the pandemic and “fearmongering to cover for decades of failing our nation’s seniors, rather than acknowledging local Democrats’ colossal failures to protect this vulnerable population during Covid.”

The Biden campaign faulted the president for failing to take responsibility. “Donald Trump is still desperately trying to blame anyone else for his failed leadership, instead of finally getting a plan in place to control the virus and get our nation back on track,” campaign spokeswoman Rosemary Boeglin said in a statement. “The stakes of this election couldn't be higher, especially for seniors who have suffered immensely from Covid-19 and have been left behind by the Trump Administration.”

Prominent nursing home advocates, staff labor unions and industry groups have criticized the Trump administration for not moving quickly and aggressively enough to protect vulnerable residents in long-term care facilities. The federal government did not start tracking nursing home infections and deaths until May, after months of public pressure, and its count is incomplete. In recent months, the administration has scaled up efforts to send rapid testing and protective equipment to nursing homes and increased enforcement action against facilities with infection control violations.

But nursing home outbreaks are still killing residents amid the pandemic, prompting many states and facilities to continue restricting visitors, though some visitation rules are now being eased. And there continue to be regular reports of insufficient PPE, staffing shortages and inadequate access to testing for nursing home staff and residents.

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The Biden campaign has made the pandemic a central part of its pitch to older voters. The campaign has released a series of ads featuring retired voters in Florida describing their fears of the virus and the impact of the pandemic on their lives. The Trump campaign, by contrast, has released an ad of a masked intruder entering an older woman’s home, telling voters “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Another Trump ad in Florida attacked Biden on Social Security.

Some of the older voters most vulnerable to the pandemic are also facing new barriers to casting a ballot. In previous years, election officials or outside groups like the League of Women Voters visited nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to assist residents with voting — efforts that have been curtailed because of visiting restrictions. While some states are deputizing nursing home staff members to help residents vote, others, like North Carolina, prohibit staff assistance out of a fear of interference.

In The Villages, Florida, one of the country’s largest retirement communities, local leaders are working to ensure that all residents are able to vote by mail — including voters in its assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

Mary Vaughn, a resident, had a 93-year-old aunt who died of Covid-19 in May. Her aunt had been a devout Catholic, but her family couldn’t hold a funeral mass for her because of the pandemic, only a small graveside burial.

“We thought back in 2016 that was the most important election of our lifetimes,” said Vaughn, 65, a retired Navy nurse who is volunteering for the county Democratic Party. “Now when we say, ‘Vote like your life depends on it,’ it does.”