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Misreported Deaths: Government count of nursing home COVID-19 cases still inaccurate despite criticism

Federal data tracking cases and deaths is riddled with errors and misleading information

By: Jill Riepenhoff and Lee Zurik

Originally Published: September 24, 2020

(InvestigateTV) – Based on federal government data, one Louisiana nursing home has lost nearly the same number of residents to COVID-19 as it has beds.

At an Indiana nursing home, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is reporting more than five times as many COVID deaths as the state is.

And, at a Pennsylvania nursing home with 270 beds, CMS is reporting that more than 2,000 residents have died from other non-COVID-related causes.

More than three months after CMS first released data on the impacts of the coronavirus on nursing homes, the numbers remain misleading, inaccurate, and flawed.

“Why is this happening?” said Denise Bottcher, Louisiana state director of the AARP. “At what point do they raise the flag to see that there’s a discrepancy in this data? It’s incredibly important for the CDC to have this data (because) they’re advising the states on how we move forward.”

The federal nursing home data, which is collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and made public by CMS, was hailed as “historic transparency” when it was first released in May. It is supposed to be the definitive source on how many residents and staff members in the country’s 15,600 nursing homes have fallen victim to the ferocious virus.

The federal data is the only national collection of COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes. Though every state collects the same data from nursing homes, it is not public in every state. Some states don’t release the names of nursing homes where outbreaks have occurred. Others don’t release the number of residents who have died.

But now, with week after week of discrepancies and inaccuracies, the national AARP is calling for greater transparency and accurate data.

“We need to have a better picture about how COVID-19 is affecting our nation’s nursing homes, their residents, and staff,” Rhonda Richards, AARP senior legislative representative, wrote in a statement to InvestigateTV. “Having this information can help residents, their families, and the public make more informed decisions, and better address preparedness and response now and in the future. We can learn how prepared facilities are, where there are issues to address, information on COVID-19 suspected and confirmed cases in facilities, COVID-19 deaths and total deaths, and more.”

Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania who has long championed for nursing home residents, said it’s time for the Senate to investigate the data’s shortcomings.

“There’s no sense in sending out information if it’s inaccurate on something as grave and serious as COVID-19 cases and deaths,” Casey said. “It’s time we pushed the (Senate finance) committee to robust oversight.”

Skye Newell just wants accurate data so that families like hers know the potential perils facing their loved ones. Newell has long worried about a COVID-19 outbreak in the Florida nursing home where her father has lived since February.

Beginning in May, she routinely checked the federal website disclosing COVID-19 cases in nursing home to see how many residents had been infected at Life Care Center in Punta Gorda, where her father, Keith Broussard, is living.

“It’s very important that we have up-to-date information,” Newell said.

Skye Newell poses with her father, Keith Broussard, for a photo on Sept. 23 at the Florida nursing home where he has been recovering from a hospital stay since February. Newell said that this was the first visit that she has had with her father in the past seven months. Source: Family-provided photo

 

According to the federal government, there have been 25 cases and three deaths at Broussard’s nursing home as of Sept. 6.

The nursing home said in a statement to InvestigateTV that the federal data on its COVID cases and deaths is accurate and that it mourns those who have died.

Life Care Centers operates more than 140 nursing homes across the U.S. Its Kirkland, Washington facility, where more than three dozen residents died of COVID-19 during March and April, reports no deaths in the federal data.

The federal government allows nursing homes to choose when they want to begin case counts: on Jan. 1 or May 8. But there’s nothing to indicate which date the nursing home is using.

It’s unknown how many nursing homes are reporting as of May 8, which effectively leaves out two months of cases and deaths.

Life Care Centers has previously said that its case counts are accurate from May 8 on and that there have been no new deaths at its Kirkland facility since then.

But eliminating cases before May clouds the true toll of the coronavirus on the nation’s 15,600 nursing homes.

Nearly 200 nursing homes haven’t reported any information to the CDC, despite a requirement to do so.

The federal data shows that more than 3,500 nursing homes reported that they haven’t had a single case of COVID-19 among their residents. InvestigateTV compared 17 of them from the Cleveland, Ohio area to state data and found four facilities with cases among residents.

Comparing federal and state data of three nursing homes in Louisiana further illustrates some of the discrepancies.

At Good Samaritan Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, a 127-bed nursing home in New Orleans, federal data shows that 56 residents have died of COVID-19 as of Sept. 6. The state reports – and the nursing home confirmed – that there have been five deaths.

At a 120-bed facility in Napoleon, the federal data shows that the COVID-19 death toll among residents stands at 97. This effectively means that nearly every resident at this facility has died from COVID-19. But state data shows that only nine residents have died.

And at a nursing home in Monroe, federal data shows the total number of people who died from one week to the next declined from 96 deaths as of Aug. 30 to 90 seven days later.

The state does not have any case counts for this nursing home.

“When you look at this nursing home data, it gives me great pause,” said Bottcher, AARP’s Louisiana official. “All the decisions that have been made thus far in relation to COVID have been data-driven. It’s important for public health officials to have to the most accurate data available to them to be able to make the best decisions.”

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