AUSTIN (KXAN) – With pandemic emergency rules declared over by federal authorities in May, state and local health officials have halted their ongoing collection and public display of detailed nursing home COVID-19 case data. The change could make it tougher for residents and their families to find up-to-date, facility-level information.
Texas Health and Human Services Commission used to update its COVID-19 case counts and vaccination rates for nursing homes and assisted living facilities on its website. Online display of COVID-19 vaccine data ended in May 2023, and case and death rate data stopped being posted online in March 2023, according to the agency’s website.
“With the expiration of emergency rules that required this data to be reported, HHSC is no longer collecting detailed COVID-19 data from nursing or assisted living facilities,” according to HHSC. The agency said it has “no plans to resume posting” the data online.
Long-term care facilities have been home to one of the most vulnerable populations to COVID-19. The virus wreaked havoc on senior homes at the height of the pandemic, causing thousands of deaths.
Early in the pandemic, the disaster prompted a fight for transparency and public display of case information for nursing homes. Local and state health authorities initially cited federal health privacy laws and blocked that information from being released to KXAN, other media organizations and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
FOIFT called for state and local officials to identify nursing facilities where COVID-19 cases had been discovered. After an Office of Attorney General ruling, HHSC and local health authorities like Austin Public Health began publicly displaying detailed information about the number of cases and deaths in individual nursing homes.
Lawmakers also got involved in 2021. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, passed Senate Bill 930, permitting the public disclosure of the number of residents diagnosed with a communicable disease like COVID-19 and the name or location of the facility.
Nursing home COVID reporting still happening
State and local COVID-19 reporting hasn’t stopped completely for nursing homes. Facilities continue to report COVID-19 outbreaks to HHSC. The agency uses those reports to determine whether to investigate or conduct an infection survey, according to an HHSC spokesperson. An “outbreak” is classified as one or more cases, HHSC said.
KXAN has requested those outbreak numbers, and we will report on that information when it becomes available.
KXAN checked back on COVID-19 case reporting after a viewer submitted a tip about an outbreak at an Austin nursing facility. Texas saw a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in senior facilities in September, when 860 cases were reported in one week – a significant increase compared to late June, when there were fewer than 100, according to federal data.
APH also ended its public presentation of facility-level COVID-19 data and launched a trimmed-down version of its COVID-19 dashboard in June that shows aggregate cases citywide for long-term care facilities.
“Instead of focusing on case counts, public health officials believe there is more value in tracking hospitalizations, deaths and other indicators such as wastewater,” APH said in a statement.
Where is facility-level data available?
Long-term care facilities are still required to report COVID-19 information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weekly. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services provides public datasets that show COVID-19 case counts, numbers of deaths, as well as vaccine rates for residents and staff for individual locations. Assisted living facility data is not available through CMS.
You can find the CMS nursing home data here. In addition to cases and deaths, the dataset also shows vaccination percentages. When vaccines were first made available, Texas nursing home residents and staff were prioritized.
According to CMS’ latest data, more than half of Texas nursing facilities had just 10%, or fewer, healthcare staff with up-to-date COVID vaccinations, as of Sept. 24.