The virus’s toll at long-term care facilities is largely veiled in secrecy
By: Jill Riepenhoff and Lee Zurik
Originally Published: April 18, 2020
(InvestigateTV) – The deadly and opportunistic novel coronavirus has found an easy mark in America’s nursing homes. Social distancing is nearly impossible to stop the spread among the 1.3 million elderly and medically fragile Americans who live there.
Nationally, an estimated 4,500 of them have died from COVID-19, according to The Associated Press.
Thousands of other nursing home residents have been infected – but the full toll that the coronavirus has taken on nursing homes is not known.
State and federal governments largely have shrouded the names and locations of nursing homes with outbreaks in secrecy.
There’s no official tally of the number of patients and staff members who have been infected or how many of them have died of COVID-19.
“This has been the biggest coverup of my 20 years of advocacy,” said Wes Bledsoe, founder of A Perfect Cause, a nursing home reform organization based in Oklahoma. “State government does not want to admit what’s going on in these nursing homes.”
The federal government won’t say either. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services each keep a list of impacted nursing homes but have refused to make it public.
Two senators wrote to those agencies in early April urging transparency.
“While the privacy of individual residents must be protected, (it) is imperative that the names of facilities with a positive COVID-19 case be made available to help prevent further spread of this terrible virus,” wrote Robert P. Casey and Ron Wyden, Democratic senators from Pennsylvania and Oregon, respectively.
Pennsylvania is among the nearly three dozen states that do not release COVID-19 cases in nursing homes.
InvestigateTV examined state health department websites and sent requests to 30 states in an attempt to find which states were reporting COVID-19 cases at nursing homes.
Eleven states post the names and locations of nursing homes with cases. Some, however, are updated only weekly.
Three states only report the county where impacted nursing homes are.
Louisiana officials said that due to the volume, it is no longer reporting about individual nursing homes.
Illinois and Maryland said that the federal health privacy law – the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA – requires secrecy to protect the identity of individuals who have COVID-19. Yet that claim isn’t made by nearly a dozen states who release the names of nursing homes with COVID cases.
Eighteen states did not respond to requests for information about nursing homes cases.
Nursing home outbreaks leave communities vulnerable
Not releasing cases at nursing homes, leaves the towns and cities where they are located vulnerable, advocates for transparency said.
The Life Center nursing home in Kirkland, Washington is a prime example as the virus crept from the facility into the community as staff members and visitors came and went.
Some 40 patients and staff have since died.
It was the nation’s first nursing home outbreak. The state of Washington hasn’t named other facilities in the state where outbreaks have occurred.
“Timely information about how and where this virus is spreading is critical to successful mitigation of the virus’s spread, direction of resources and access to support,” the senators said in their letter to the CDC and CMS.
A health care worker in Massachusetts died in April of COVID-19 after going public with allegations that her nursing home was covering up cases.
The state also has one of the largest known outbreaks at the Soldier’s Home, with 179 sickened, according to The New York Times. Yet Massachusetts doesn’t publicly report nursing home cases.
Virginia only releases counties where nursing home clusters are located. It is home to a nursing home where more than 100 are sickened, according to The New York Times tracking.
More than 20% of the nation’s nursing homes are located in California, Ohio and Texas, according to data from Kaiser Health News.
On April 15, Ohio began naming nursing homes with COVID-19 cases but won’t release the number of deaths. California and Texas do not publicly report either.
In Ohio, 32 patients have been sickened at a single nursing home in rural Darke County along the Indiana border. But the virus has spread throughout the county, with two dozen residents with COVID-19, according to state data.
Culling news reports and government data, The York Times has identified more than 3,100 nursing homes with at least one COVID-19 case.
“You don’t have families in there anymore. You don’t have the state ombudsman in there anymore,” Bledsoe said. “The eyes that you normally have in there watching the nursing home all are gone.”
A long-term care resident says she and others are ‘the forgotten ones’
Marcia Foster relies on the staff of her assisted-living facility to help her with some of the most intimate care.
Multiple sclerosis has bound her to a wheelchair.
“I can do a lot from the waist up, but I can’t do diddly squat from the waist down,” the 69-year-old widow said.
She said the nurses and aides in her facility are kind and caring but they lack even the most basic protective gear to keep themselves and residents safe.
Many of them work at two different nursing homes to make ends meet, making the risk of cross contamination that much greater.
“They wear paper surgical masks over and over,” Foster said. “We need masks. This is such a stupid thing that hasn’t been done.”
Foster did not want to disclose the name of her home for fear of retribution.
The CDC has recommended, among other things, that health care workers in nursing homes without known COVID-19 cases wear masks – either paper or cloth – at all times.
On April 11, the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living issued new guidance instructing them to notify residents, their families, staff and state and local health officials of positive cases.
“We believe this information can help identify long-term care providers who are most in need of testing and PPE (personal protective equipment) resources,” Mark Parkinson, the organization’s CEO and president wrote in a statement.
The association did not respond to requests for comment.
Residents in Foster’s home have not been tested for the coronavirus, she said. She fears an outbreak will happen and that the management will be reluctant to notify other residents.
“I would not put it past them to hide it from us,” she said.
She closely follows the news on the coronavirus and especially any updates on nursing home outbreaks, leading to her strong views.
“Owners are trying to obscure the facts, and the politicians aren’t even talking about it,” she said. “We are often the forgotten people.”