Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Virginia Department of Health has refused to release which specific long-term care facilities had positive cases.
Health officials cited state code and personnel reasons.
WYDaily tried in April to get the number of coronavirus cases and deaths at specific facilities and was told VDH would not release case specific information unless it was an emergency, according to an interview with Tammie Smith, spokeswoman for state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver.
She emailed WYDaily citing part of the state code, which noted Oliver, or any health directors, could not reveal the person who reported the information. The code defined a person as not only an individual but a corporation or other entity.
Not only did the public not know which nursing homes had cases, neither did other nursing homes or other long-term care facilities.
On June 19, when all state offices and other entities were closed for the first to commemorate the anniversary ending slavery in the United States, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered VDH to name nursing homes and assisted living facilities with coronavirus outbreaks, including the number of cases and deaths.
“VDH has previously released aggregate data about outbreaks in long-term care facilities, given their responsibility to protect patient and facility anonymity under the Code of Virginia,” the announcement read. “However, 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.”
“Recently released data from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has also been inconsistent, creating public confusion,” the news release noted.
The data is broken down by which facilities in the state have a current outbreak, if the facility’s outbreak is pending or if the outbreak is currently closed.
“A confirmed outbreak in a long-term care facility is defined as the identification of two or more laboratory-confirmed cases of illness, with onset dates within one incubation period (14 days),” according to the VDH website. “Outbreaks are typically closed when two incubation periods (28 days) have passed without onset of new illness. Outbreaks are labeled as “Pending Closure” if 28 days have passed without a documented new case and the outbreak has not yet been closed in VOSS.”
Facilities with an asterisk* for the number of cases or deaths means the number is less than five and sharing the number might identify the person who tested positive –––violating HIPPA.
The first day the data was released, the following facilities in the Historic Triangle showed the outbreaks was either closed or pending closure.
There were no current outbreaks at the facilities in the Historic Triangle.
“We’ve been pushing for this for some time now,” said Greg Storer, president and CEO of Williamsburg Landing. “I think it’s important that we all know especially in our area, potential cases exists.”
Storer is part of Northam’s COVID-19 Taskforce and a board member of LeadingAge Virginia, an organization made up of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
He advocated for VDH to share the case locations with the other facilities since they sometimes share staff and could follow up or test them for the coronavirus.
“I just think that the more transparency, the better all of us are,” he said. “We serve the most vulnerable population and anything we can do to ensure the safety of our employees, I think we have a responsibility to do that.”
He said Northam’s three-phased guidelines is a “roadmap” to reopen the community.
“It’s been almost three months in our community alone where our residents in our nursing homes have not been able to visit, face to face with their families,” he said. “I think as we continue to get information, and follow the guidelines, hopefully this all gets back to… something that we are comfortable with.”
“I think it’s been the lack of information that’s created so much anxiety particularly among family members,” said William Massey, president & CEO of the Peninsula Agency on Aging. “I think having this new information available so individuals can really see the impact of what COVID-19 has been.”
Massey said while the nonprofit’s focus is not directly on nursing homes, they do work with them. It’s personal for him personal as one of his family members live in a nursing home.
“I think that certainly it’s a great start,” he said of the new data. “I read that there’s a huge push for more testing in the nursing facilities, that’s something that we heard forever needing more testing.”
The issue with testing: Someone could test negative one day and be positive the next, Massey said.
And while testing is expensive, he said he feels it’s essential.
“It just seem really abundantly clear that more testing needs to be done, more testing on a regular basis,” he added.
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