When Covid-19 Hit, Many Elderly Were Left to Die

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That meant leaving contagious people inside crowded, understaffed, underequipped nursing homes.

“We got the impression quite early on that we would take the back seat,” said Lesley Moreels, the director of a public nursing home in Brussels. “We felt that we were going to be firefighters in pajamas.”

Belgium went into lockdown on March 18. Dozens of nursing-home residents had already died. Three days later, Jacqueline Van Peteghem, a 91-year-old resident at the Christalain home, was sent to UZ Brussel, a nearby hospital, where she was tested for Covid-19. Within days, her test came back positive.

Shirley and Steve Doyen assumed Ms. Van Peteghem would remain hospitalized for treatment and to prevent the disease from spreading to scores of other residents. But her symptoms had stabilized, and Mr. Doyen said that a hospital doctor declared her healthy enough to return home.

So, on March 27, paramedics in hazmat suits delivered Ms. Van Peteghem, on a stretcher, to the door of Christalain.

Mr. Doyen greeted them wearing a surgical mask.

“Is this mask all you have?” the paramedics asked, Mr. Doyen recalled.

“Yes,” he said.

“Good luck,” they responded.

For the next hour, Christalain staff members watched as the paramedics decontaminated themselves and their ambulance. Asked later about the hospital’s policies, the chief executive, Prof. Marc Noppen, said infectious patients were not normally returned to nursing homes but that it may have happened in some cases.

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