Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday released the names of nursing homes and assisted living facilities where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred and claimed the lives of 1,000 Virginians.
Their deaths represent 62.4% of Virginia’s 1,602 fatalities from the coronavirus.
Until now, the governor has said state code grants the homes the same health privacy rights as people.
“Due to the widespread nature of this pandemic, it is now unlikely that releasing facility information would compromise anonymity or discourage facilities from participating in a public health investigation,” he said in a news release.
The website, which is not on the Virginia Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, lists the facilities by name, type, status of the outbreak and when the Health Department was notified, along with the number of cases and deaths. It does not include demographic information.
South Roanoke Nursing Home, with 55 cases and 13 deaths, and Richfield Recovery and Care Center, with five cases, are the only ones listed for the Roanoke Valley. No New River Valley homes show up on the list.
“I think all of our long-term care residents and their families will feel relief and gratitude for the Governor‘s efforts to ensure the public has access to facility-specific case and outbreak data,” Joani Latimer, director of the Office of the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman, said in a statement. “No doubt this good faith step will go a long way to reducing some of the anxiety and confusion, and to restoring trust. And it certainly seems to support the overall public health interests.”
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in an email that the governor’s decision to release the information is based on changing circumstances with the pandemic and was made in consultation with the health commissioner.
“At the start of the pandemic, fewer COVID-19 outbreaks made it difficult to release the names of these facilities while upholding anonymity requirements under Virginia code. Now that there are more cases in Virginia, it is less likely that releasing this information would compromise anonymity or limit cooperation with a public health investigation. It is also important that this information is released now, given inconsistent information reported at the federal level.”
Northam said data recently released on the nursing homes released by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is creating public confusion.
Yarmosky added that Northam “has always been committed to providing as much information as possible under state law. We are confident that given these new circumstances, this decision will ensure the maximum transparency allowed under the code.”
Until now, the administration has cited sections of the code that say neither the name of any person reported to the Health Department nor the name of any person making a report shall be disclosed to the public, and that “person” means an “individual, corporation, partnership or other legal entity.”
Northam has rarely talked about the toll of the illness on residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities and group homes. He appointed a task force in April.
There have been 230 outbreaks in long-term care since March that account for 6,519 of the state’s 56,793 cases. It is not known how many of the state’s 5,797 hospitalizations are linked to long-term care. It was known for more than a month that 60% of the state’s deaths came from long-term care. By mid-May, there had been 170 outbreaks that had killed 589.
Until Friday, the Health Department provided little information about the outbreaks, identifying them only by health district, which often includes multiple counties. It had not released the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths for individual outbreaks.
Dr. Norman Oliver, the health commissioner, wrote in an email Friday that state code offers “limited ability to release the names of persons being investigated, specifically to ensure a public health investigation is not hindered. However, given the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities and the widespread community transmission of the disease, I believe releasing the names of facilities will not hamper our continued investigation of outbreaks. As noted, it is also important to release this information now, as inconsistent information is being released at the federal level.”
Until now, Oliver had said the attorney general’s office advised him not to release the names of the homes. Both Northam and Oliver said previously that nursing homes beginning in May were required to report that information to the federal government, so the public could eventually learn of the cases.
However, assisted living facilities and group homes are not considered health care providers and are under no obligations to report the information to the federal government.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, questioned Northam’s timing and said in a statement that families have been seeking this information for months.
“Now, after the body count in nursing homes reaches 1,000, the Governor has reversed course,” he said.
“If it is legal to release the information now, it was legal to release it when it was first requested. Perhaps, had the Governor not been distracted by his political rehabilitation, he could have realized this earlier and lives could have been saved,” Gilbert said. “Incompetence kills, and there is a great deal of incompetence from this Governor. Inexplicable decisions like this will force us to look at executive authority in the upcoming special session.”
Northam also said the state is issuing new guidelines and testing requirements for reopening the facilities for families to visit, and he outlined how Virginia will spend $246 million in federal funds to support the facilities.
Keith Hare, CEO of the Virginia Health Care Association-Virginia Center for Assisted Living, said in a statement that the facilities want to ensure residents’ safety while reuniting them with their families.
“Weekly COVID-19 testing for residents and staffs will require the capacity of private labs to conduct the tests and have results in a timely manner. The state must ensure this capacity is in place given what we know about the asymptomatic spread of this virus,” he said. “Adequate funding to cover the costs of this testing is also critical.”
The association estimates testing will cost $4.5 million a week, or about $16,000 to $18,000 for the average Medicaid nursing facility each week to test staff.
“As Virginia moves forward with reopening, continued state and federal funding is going to be critical to ensure the safety of residents and care providers at Virginia’s nursing and assisted living facilities, which are already struggling to absorb skyrocketing costs that have come with dealing with COVID-19,” Hare said.
Hare also said the state’s release of information on the homes shows what has been known for months about the virus’ effect on residents and staff.
“We know that full transparency and real-time, accurate data being made available will validate our calls for assistance that nursing homes and assisted living centers have been making since the beginning of this pandemic,” Hare said.
Virginia will follow the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ reopening criteria and require nursing homes to conduct baseline testing of all staff and residents during the first phase of reopening.
Northam said the point prevalence surveys will be completed by July 15. As of June 14, the Health Department, with assistance from the National Guard, had completed 60 of the 154 requests for point prevalence studies by long-term care facilities. Three-quarters of the requests are for nursing homes.
The Health Department on Friday reported that 1,000 of the state’s 1,602 COVID-19 deaths are linked to outbreaks in long-term care.
The department revised the long-term death fatality count upward by 55 on Friday, although the overall count of deaths rose by 16. On Thursday, the long-term care fatality count rose by 40, while overall deaths went up by only three.
Spokeswoman Julie Grimes said in an email, “Local health officials are continually working to ensure COVID-19 case and outbreak investigations are complete as possible.”
The investigations have led to previously reported cases and deaths, which were part of the statewide totals, being assigned to outbreaks in Virginia’s surveillance system, which is then reflected on the website’s dashboard.
Deaths of residents and staff of long-term care now account for 62.4% of Virginians who have died from the virus.
Information about long-term care facilities that have had COVID-19 outbreaks can be found at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/health-professionals/virginia-long-term-care-task-force/.
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