Capital Region

Foss: We need more info about COVID-19 nursing home deaths

Assemblyman Ron Kim, right, speaks with Berna Lee, whose mother is a resident of the Sapphire Center in Queens
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Assemblyman Ron Kim, right, speaks with Berna Lee, whose mother is a resident of the Sapphire Center in Queens

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

The stories are disturbing.

There’s the veteran’s home in Holyoke, Mass., where 47 residents have died of COVID-19, prompting a state investigation.

There’s the nursing home in New Jersey where 17 bodies were discovered in the facility’s morgue by police acting on an anonymous tip. There’s the nursing home in Queens where dozens of residents have died from coronavirus and angry relatives claim officials are stonewalling them.

I could go on.

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But you get the idea.

Everywhere you turn, there’s a story about a nursing home ravaged by COVID-19.

And while we’ve known for some time that long-term care facilities are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, that doesn’t make these stories any less alarming.

The New York Times estimates that at least a fifth of U.S. coronavirus deaths have occurred in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities. That’s roughly 7,000 people – a big number that suggests these facilities have been outmatched by a virus that’s especially dangerous for elderly adults. 

Making the problem worse is a troubling lack of transparency that all too often leaves the public in the dark about some of the biggest COVID-19 hot spots in their community.

The state Department of Health released new information about nursing home deaths last week, but the data is frustratingly incomplete.

Missing from the list of nursing homes with COVID-19 fatalities are facilities where fewer than five people died, and deaths that occurred off-site, in hospitals.

So if you’re hoping to get a better picture of how nursing homes upstate have been impacted, good luck: The data is mostly limited to downstate facilities with large outbreaks.

We know that Schenectady County leads the Capital Region with eight long-term care facility deaths, but we don’t know where those deaths occurred, because county officials have refused to say and DOH is only releasing the names of facilities with more than five deaths.

There’s nothing stopping Schenectady County from keeping the public informed about nursing home cases and deaths – other counties have made this information available.

Officials often cite patient privacy as justification for keeping it secret, but no one is asking for the names of nursing home residents who have died, or any other personal data.

One of the best tools we have to fight COVID-19 is information.

Releasing the names of long-term care facilities that have suffered outbreaks or deaths can help protect patient safety, keep families informed of what’s happening at institutions entrusted with safeguarding the health of their loved ones and better track the virus’ spread in the community.

The state is relying on nursing homes to accurately report deaths, and it’s easy to see the flaw in this protocol: It makes it easier for bad actors to cover up bad news.

That said, the DOH data does provide a window into how New York’s elder care facilities have been affected by COVID-19.

And it isn’t pretty.

According to USA Today, at least 42 nursing homes across New York state have had at least 10 COVID-19 deaths. That represents about 25 percent of the 3,000-plus nursing home or assisted living facility deaths statewide.

In the Capital Region, we haven’t heard disturbing reports of bodies piled up at our local nursing homes, or of dozens of residents killed at a single long-term care facility.

I hope it stays that way.

But the lack of information released by the state, local counties and the facilities themselves makes it difficult to know what’s really going on.

That bothers me – and it should bother you, too.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinion expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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