Amid calls for transparency, health officials quiet on deaths in individual nursing homes

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Kelly Puente, Long Beach Post, April 17

Long Beach Healthcare Center, a nursing home, in Long Beach Thursday, April 16, 2020. The Long Beach Health Department on Wednesday issued a new health order mandating a range of protocols meant to slow the spread of coronavirus in the city’s nursing homes. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

A nursing home advocacy group on Friday called on public health officials in Long Beach and throughout the state to release more detailed information on outbreaks and fatalities in nursing homes, which have become breeding grounds for COVID-19.

States and counties throughout the nation have long had a patchwork of disclosure practices for long-term care facilities. Now those practices are being put to the test with rising demands from families and the wider public for more information.

Long Beach has rebuffed requests by the Post for figures on how many people have died from coronavirus in individual long-term care facilities within the city, releasing only consolidated numbers for facilities with infections.

In an interview, Michael Connors, a spokesman for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, criticized Long Beach and other municipalities for leaving the public largely in the dark.

“There is no right of privacy that prevents public health officials from informing the public on outbreaks in long term care facilities,” he said. “There’s absolutely no justification for using privacy or relationships with facilities as an excuse for keeping the public in the dark in the midst of a pandemic that threatens the life of every long-term care facility resident.”

Recently, Los Angeles County began listing not only the names of long-term care facilities with confirmed coronavirus cases but also started placing asterisks next to  those with outbreaks of at least three cases.

Long Beach, for its part, provides names of long-term care facilities that have confirmed coronavirus cases and fatalities but releases only overall numbers for the group. This makes it impossible to determine whether one or more facilities could account for the bulk of infections and deaths.

In the latest numbers released Friday, the city reported 419 positive cases of coronavirus, of which 105 were linked to seven long-term care facilities. Of 20 deaths in the city, the vast majority—15—have been linked to long-term care facilities.

In declining to provide the Post with raw numbers of coronavirus fatalities at individual long-term care facilities, Long Beach officials initially cited “patient privacy” as the reason.

The Post, in a subsequent request, stressed that it was seeking only minimal statistical information, not records that would reveal identifiable health information for individuals who had died, which would be prohibited under government regulations.

The city responded through its Joint Information Center that:

“In addition to potentially harming our strong working relationship with local facilities, it is a public health standard that we do not share this type of information with the public. This is consistent with other city and county health jurisdictions in the State, many of which do not even provide the names of facilities with cases.”

As of Friday, Long Beach facilities with confirmed coronavirus cases included:

  • Palmcrest Grand Assisted Living
  • Long Beach Healthcare Center
  • Pacific Palms Healthcare
  • Bixby Knolls Towers
  • Broadway by the Sea
  • Royal Care

With increasing calls nationwide for more transparency, New York on Friday broke with its past practices and released the names of 72 long-term facilities with five or more deaths. The New York Times subsequently reported that at least 14 nursing homes in New York City and its suburbs have each recorded more than 25 coronavirus-related deaths.

Connors of the California advocacy group said policies of not releasing the names of nursing homes with specific numbers of deaths that have occurred there will only serve to protect dangerous facilities with histories of state and federal violations.

“Given what we know about how deadly COVID-19 is in nursing homes, and especially so in Long Beach, it is unconscionable that public health officials are choosing to keep the public in the dark about facilities that have outbreaks,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Long Beach Health Department issued a new health order mandating a range of protocols meant to slow the spread of coronavirus in the city’s nursing homes.

In addition to mandating tighter visitation policies and daily temperature screenings, the city is also prioritizing lab testing for both residents and staff and providing personal protective equipment for facilities that do not have sufficient supplies.