MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are major drivers of COVID-19 deaths, but Alabama public health authorities conceal which ones have outbreaks.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, employees, residents and visitors at long-term care facilities account for about 12 percent of the state’s 5,832 cases of the novel coronavirus.
And because those facilities are filled with fragile residents who are most at risk from the virus, outbreaks can significantly increase death totals. Rendi Murphree, director of the Mobile County Health Department’s Bureau of Disease Surveillance and Environmental Services at the Mobile County Health Department, cited that as a reason for why the county leads the state in coronavirus deaths.
“Part of the reason that we have an increased death (total) in Mobile County is because we have outbreaks in a couple of nursing homes, and they have contributed to the deaths,” she said at her daily briefing on Friday. “Probably around one third of our reported deaths has been residents of long-term care facilities.”
Two of those nursing homes are known because administrators of those facilities have been forthcoming. Crowne Health Care on Navco Road has reported that 94 residents and employees have contracted the disease. Twelve people connected with the facility have died.
Lynwood Healthcare, three miles down the road, has reported several cases, as well.
In Baldwin County, the William F. Green State Veterans Home in Bay Minette has reported that three employees have tested positive.
Murphree on Thursday said the Health Department was conducting at least six “cluster investigations” and nursing homes, detention centers and other settings. But on Friday, in a response to a question from FOX10 News, she declined to identify them.
“Yes, outbreaks are also reportable to the state Health Department and the Mobile County Health Department. So they must report to us,” she said. “But we have a responsibility to allow them to provide any public information that they feel is important to release. It’s not out story to tell.”
Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer, told FOX10 News that the agency investigates all COVID-19 cases, and she confirmed that long-term care facilities are required to report cases. But she also declined to identify which ones have recorded infections and deaths.
“ADPH does not disclose the names of LTC as part of the investigative process,” she wrote in an email to FOX10 News.
Landers referenced guidance published by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That document, published Sunday, requires all nursing homes to report coronavirus cases directly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also previewed a forthcoming rule that will require them to notify residents and their representatives. The document also states that collection of the data will support efforts to monitor trends in infection rates and help guide public health policies.
“This information may be retained a publicly reported in accordance with law,” it states.
The CMS memorandum also mandates that nursing homes include information about how they are preventing or reducing the risk of transmission.
The document does not appear to address the issue of whether the state must make such information public, other than a line that reads, “This information must be reported in accordance with existing privacy regulations and statute.”
Health officials in Mobile County and Montgomery did not cite a specific statute that allows the information to be withheld. A spokeswoman for the CDC referred FOX10 News to CMS. A representative of that agency, pointed FOX10 News back to the state Health Department.
Other states have identified nursing homes that have had coronavirus cases. This includes Florida, which recently released the names of all 303 long-term care facilities that have had infections.
California, New York and Georgia meanwhile, have released partial lists, according to The Washington Post.
Murphree said she sympathizes with people who have anxiety about the well-being of loved ones who are in nursing homes.
“I understand that this is a great concern of families who have loved ones that are in long-term care facilities,” she said. “And you are desperate to learn if that facility has any cases or not.”
But Murphree added that about 30 long-term care facilities in the county have no COVID-19 cases and that the few that do have been communicating with their residents’ family members.