By Lou Michel The Buffalo News April 7, 2020
More than 700 of New York State’s estimated 100,000 nursing home residents have died from Covid-19, but the state refuses to identify the nursing homes that housed more than 3,000 residents who tested positive for the highly contagious virus.
The state Health Department refused to explain to The Buffalo News its rationale for not identifying the nursing homes, except to point out it has not released specifics on other illnesses in the past.
Health department officials will only provide a few statistics.
As of Sunday, there had been 702 Covid-19 deaths at 278 of the state’s 613 nursing homes. Nursing home residents represented 15% of the state’s 4,758 Covid-19 fatalities.
In addition, there were 3,243 confirmed cases among nursing home residents, as of Sunday – or 2% of the state’s 130,869 cases.
More than 60 people associated with Father Baker Manor nursing home in Orchard Park, including 41 residents, have tested positive for Covid-19, Catholic Health officials announced this morning.
Advocates for nursing home residents, who are considered the most vulnerable to the highly contagious virus, said the state is taking the wrong approach at a time when transparency is most needed to understand the nature of the novel coronavirus.
A trade group executive who represents nursing homes and hospitals said it is his understanding that the state Health Department has adopted the policy of not releasing the names to prevent widespread fear.
“The strategy is to not release the names of individual homes because the homes themselves will become places of fear and misinformation,” said Michael Balboni, executive director of Greater New York Health Care Facilities Association.
Balboni said he based that belief on information he has received in daily telephone discussions with the officials at the state Health Department and New York City Department of Health.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker have not shed any light on the apparent secretive policy.
But they both offered details on what is happening at nursing homes to contain the virus during a news conference Monday.
“When you have a Covid patient who has been in that facility, they’re trying to isolate the Covid patient within that facility,” Cuomo said.
Zucker said, “Within those nursing homes we’re working to make sure we minimize the spread of Covid-19.”
In response to The News’ request for the names of the nursing homes and cases in them, state Health Department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond said in an email Friday, “The information is not available.”
But in a follow-up email Monday, Hammond stated that on Saturday the Health Department began requiring nursing homes to notify residents and their families about any suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19 at their facility.
“Ensuring New York’s most vulnerable nursing home population is protected is a priority in addressing the current Covid-19 outbreak and containing the virus,” he said.
The Health Department, in the past, has not released information on nursing homes with flu cases and is taking the same position with Covid-19 cases, according to Hammond.
The News has been learning about Covid-19 cases in nursing homes on a piecemeal basis from concerned relatives of residents and tipsters.
An unsubstantiated report of a confirmed case at Garden Gate Health Care Facility on Saturday turned out to be true, according to Jennifer Page, whose mother is a resident at the Cheektowaga facility.
Page said that after her mother had called her about the report, the daughter said she later received a call from a home official confirming the positive case.
“This virus can spread like wildfire inside nursing homes,” Page said. “This is so dangerous. We need accurate information now. Think about families and loved ones of employees who work at these places. They need to know if a worker has come in contact.”
Tipsters on Saturday alerted The News to a major outbreak of Covid-19 at Father Baker Manor in Orchard Park.
Richard J. Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, said it is his belief that nursing homes are hiding behind federal health privacy regulations known as HIPAA.
“That is really disingenuous. We are not asking for individuals’ names. We are asking for statistics and essential data so that we can make informed decisions as a community,” Mollot said. “Obviously, the DOH should be fostering, not blocking people, from what is going on in their community.”
The information, Mollot explained, is also necessary for elected officials to make informed decisions on policies to contain the novel coronavirus.
He said one of the policies that needs to change is the state’s mandatory requirement that individuals with Covid-19 be allowed to enter nursing homes.
These individuals, he said, should be placed in subacute care facilities that are set up to exclusively care for them.
“To use nursing homes as a safety valve for those discharged from hospitals with the coronavirus is essentially going to be a death warrant for a lot of vulnerable people,” Mollot said. “When you are stepping out of a hospital to make room for somebody else, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Several calls and emails were sent by The News to state legislative representatives to obtain their insights on identifying nursing homes with Covid-19 cases.
The News had not received any responses from those officials as of Monday afternoon.
In further defending withholding the identity of nursing homes and treating Covid-19 residents, Balboni said those facilities are able to provide safe treatment.
“ … a home can have an isolation unit with trained staff and adequate personal protective equipment and therefore be able to provide care for Covid-positive patients,” he said.
But if the state starts releasing names of nursing homes with these patients, he said, the message of safe care would be lost because fear would take over.