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What’s going on in our nursing homes?

| August 16, 2020 1:00 AM

Idaho is five months into the coronavirus pandemic, and we still haven’t gotten a handle on cases in the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

As Idaho Statesman journalist Audrey Dutton reported, the system of reporting COVID-19 cases and deaths is unorganized and disjointed, leading to an underreporting of cases and leaving families unaware of and misinformed about outbreaks and deaths in facilities where loved ones are living.

A Statesman analysis of state and federal data found that the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s records don’t include 13 nursing homes that have been reporting active COVID-19 outbreaks to the CDC.

In addition, seven nursing homes reported outbreaks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that appear to be stable or resolved but have never shown up in the state’s record of outbreaks.

The state gets its information from local health districts, while the CDC gets outbreak information directly from nursing homes.

Both of the data sources have contained inaccuracies caused by data entry or processing errors in a fast-changing pandemic that has overwhelmed long-term care facilities and public health agencies.

Further, the CDC database contains only nursing homes, which are federally regulated, while the state list contains nursing homes and state-regulated residential assisted living facilities and group homes for people with disabilities.

We already know that the elderly are at most risk from the disease caused by coronavirus.

In Idaho, 60% of the 237 deaths were in people 80 and older, and 94.5% of all deaths have occurred in people 60 and older.

Our highest priority must be protecting those in the most vulnerable populations. Protecting those populations, though, can’t happen if we’re unaware of outbreaks and cases.

In addition, with Ada County in Stage 3 of Idaho’s phased reopening plan, that means visits to long-term care facilities are prohibited. That leaves families often at the mercy of individual facilities to let them know what’s happening within those walls where loved ones may be exposed to the deadly virus.

Unfortunately, the Statesman found, many family members are left in the dark.

Several family members spoke with the Statesman and said they were unaware of cases or outbreaks at their loved ones’ facilities. In one case examined by the Statesman, one Boise facility failed to inform family members that a resident had died from COVID-19 earlier that day. In that facility, nursing home staff had been testing positive for coronavirus for weeks, but family members had not been informed.

Other family members told the Statesman of similar experiences, receiving confusing, conflicting or delayed information about COVID-19 from the facilities that house their loved ones.

Meanwhile, the state merely “recommends” facilities notify residents and their designated representatives and families “within a reasonable timeframe.”

Further, state officials at the Department of Health and Welfare rely on an “education” strategy rather than fines or imprisonment for failure to notify families.

As with other problems the state encountered, we have been willing to give officials the benefit of the doubt in responding to an unprecedented event that overwhelmed agencies.

But now that we are five months down this road, it’s well past time for the Department of Health and Welfare to have this figured out. It’s also become clear that private care facilities, for whatever reason, are not doing an adequate job of informing family members of exposure to coronavirus for people living and working in their facilities.

These places need to do a much better job of reporting coronavirus, and the state needs to do a much better job of holding their feet to the fire.

The lives of thousands of our most vulnerable residents are at stake.