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For safety’s sake, Maryland should publicly list nursing homes with coronavirus cases | COMMENTARY

FEMA's Disaster Medical Assistance Team members remove protective gear after exiting FutureCare Lochearn after officials said they uncovered an outbreak of COVID-19 among its population of 200 residents.
FEMA's Disaster Medical Assistance Team members remove protective gear after exiting FutureCare Lochearn after officials said they uncovered an outbreak of COVID-19 among its population of 200 residents. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Valerie Evans says she found out about the staggering scope of the coronavirus outbreak at her mother’s nursing home — FutureCare Lochearn in Northwest Baltimore — not from staff or her mom’s caregivers, but from reading the news online. And once she learned of her diabetic mother’s COVID-19 diagnosis, she says she struggled to reach workers for more information. No one reached out to her, and she found it harder and harder to get anyone to answer her calls.

Her mother, Esther Walker, a former teacher’s assistant in Anne Arundel County, died Saturday at age 72 from COVID-19 complications, according to a report from Sun reporter Phil Davis. At least 170 cases of the virus have been identified at the Lochearn location, 41 of them among staff members.

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The lack of coronavirus information from nursing homes is not unique to FutureCare, however — nor even Maryland. Health officials in states throughout the country have been withholding information about the disease in nursing homes, whose residents are typically among the most vulnerable to its effects.

Sun reporter Scott Dance reported Thursday that state health officials here denied a Baltimore Sun request for information about nursing homes that have coronavirus cases, claiming such a disclosure serves no public health purpose.

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“Public disclosure of the information about positive test results at nursing homes does not help to protect the public since visitors have not been permitted at these facilities for several weeks,” Heather Shek, assistant director of the state health department’s Office of Governmental Affairs, wrote in a letter to The Sun. “Only staff and residents are affected by the presence of persons with positive tests in the nursing home.”

Not quite. She forgot to mention every person the staff member comes into contact with, and all the people making deliveries to the facility or providing contract services and those they come into contact with, along with the medical personnel responding to emergencies, and families researching facilities for loved ones in need.

Even the Trump administration appears to understand the value of sharing nursing home coronavirus data. A proposed rule announced Sunday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid would require nursing homes to inform residents and their families or representatives of COVID-19 cases within facilities. They also would have to directly inform the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (though state officials should have already been doing that), and CMS has said it will make the data publicly available after it’s collected.

“Nursing homes have been ground zero for COVID-19. Today’s action supports CMS’ long-standing commitment to providing transparent and timely information,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement.

But the rule-making hasn’t happened yet, and valuable time is wasting. A handful of states, including Florida, have begun to publicly list nursing homes with coronavirus cases, and there’s no compelling reason for Maryland to not be among them.

The state already has the information; it is simply declining to share it at a time when information sharing could not be more critical to stemming the spread of the disease and quelling inaccurate rumors about who’s affected and how. We’ve already seen how quickly myths spread in the absence of evidence: Maryland failed to collect and share race information early on, for example, and now Baltimore City is battling an incorrect perception that African Americans are immune to the disease, when they’re actually disproportionately harmed by it.

Maryland officials claim privacy of nursing home residents is an issue, and that individuals could be identified as having the disease based on reported numbers. But for that to be the case, pretty much an entire facility would have to be infected, and in that event, privacy should be the least of their concerns.

This is not about blame or shaming victims — it’s about protecting the most vulnerable and the community at large, and developing best practices to prevent outbreaks in other areas. The public has a right to know who’s dealing with what, where and how, among Maryland’s 226 nursing facilities, and to learn from their experiences. We can likely glean as much from the uninfected as the infected.

Without such information, we’re left with a hodgepodge of incomplete and potentially inaccurate claims, doled out by individual nursing homes, local health departments or frustrated families who fear for their loved ones. That’s not a position anyone should be in. The state should make this information available immediately. Coronavirus cannot be dealt with in a vacuum, it’s a community concern, and it will take the cooperation and education of all of us to eradicate it.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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