AUSTIN (KXAN) — The state of Texas refuses to release the locations of long-term care facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks, but now the federal government will begin releasing that information as soon as this month.
New federal guidelines require facilities to report data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) no less than weekly. They’re also required to inform residents and families of new cases by 5 p.m. the next calendar day.
Then, according to a memo sent out last week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will publicly post that information, in order to “support protecting the health and safety of residents, personnel, and the general public.”
The facilities must report:
- Suspected and confirmed COVID-19 infections among residents and staff, including residents previously treated for COVID-19
- Total deaths and COVID-19 deaths among residents and staff
- Personal protective equipment and hand hygiene supplies in the facility
- Ventilator capacity and supplies in the facility
- The number of resident beds
- Access to COVID-19 testing while the resident is in the facility
- Any staffing shortages
The move was first announced on April 19, by Medicare Administrator Seema Verma at the White House’s daily coronavirus briefing.
According to the newly released memo, the first round of reporting is due Sunday, May 17. The data will be posted here by the end of May.
In response to questions about why the rule took so long to go info effect, a spokesperson for CMS gave a statement to NBC News that read, “As nursing homes report this data to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], we will be taking swift action and publicly posting this information so all Americans have access to accurate and timely information on COVID-19 in nursing homes. This reporting requirement is the first action of its kind in the agency’s history,” the statement read. “The agency remains committed to greater transparency, and will never stop working to give patients, residents, and families the clearest and most accurate information possible.”
Texas cites privacy laws as reason for lack of reporting
So far, the Texas Health Health and Human Services Commission have only released the number of facilities who have reported at least one case of COVID-19 and the total number of residents who have died.
Even as the virus spread in these homes and other states began releasing comprehensive information, HHSC refused to release more data.
Spokespersons for the commission, and eventually the Acting Executive Commissioner Phil Wilson, cited state and federal privacy laws as the reason for the lack of information.
A spokesperson for HHSC said, “We are working to release as much information as we are legally permitted to share publicly, in compliance with state and federal law.”
HHSC has requested a ruling from the Texas Attorney General’s Office related to requests for data on confirmed COVID-19 cases in HHSC-regulated facilities, identified by facility. According to the document provided, 18 public information requests have been filed for this information.
However, they have cited several changes to state law that “make it clear that the Commission is not authorized to release the requested information.”
Austin Public Health began releasing the total number of positive cases and deaths in area facilities with “clusters,” but also refused to identify the locations.
AARP pushing for more transparency
AARP Texas has been pushing for more transparency, after hearing concerns from their members about a lack of information.
“I think the fact that families can’t be in the facility has put a spotlight on the communication problem,” said Amanda Fredriksen, Associate State Director of advocacy and outreach for AARP Texas.
She said the amount of information given to residents, families and the public often varies from facility-to-facility.
“They all handle it a little differently, and so it really depends on how that facility communicates,” she said.
“We have lots of members who’ve reached out and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t find out what’s going on in the facility. I’m scared. I’m worried. My mother, my grandmother is worried and concerned, because they can’t find out what’s going on.’“Amanda Fredriksen, AARP Texas
Fredriksen said her group is pleased to see a more standardized process from the federal government for reporting information.
“I think it’s really important that the public be able to get this information, so they can make informed choices and do the best they can for their loved one,” she said.
Fredriksen emphasized how important it is for the general public to know where outbreaks are, as well. She said facilities have to share staff in many jurisdictions, so it’s important for the community to be aware of at-risk locations.
“Given the community spread of this virus and the fact that people are spreading it when they are asymptomatic, I think it’s important the public has more information about where this virus is,” she said.
Navigating the reporting system
The Texas Health Care Association is helping facilities navigate the new reporting system.
“There’s going to be a learning curve: it is the same information, but it’s not the same process, so providers will have to make sure they are maintaining compliance,” President Kevin Warren said.
He explained that facilities already have to report much of the same information to the state, so they had hoped the federal government would pull from that data — instead of requiring additional reporting by the facilities.
Warren said many facilities are still working out how to independently report updates to family members and residents, which often means calling thousands of family members.
“The may send emails, but email doesn’t have that human touch,” Warren said. “That’s the part that providers want to give, and that’s the balance they are having to do, with the data reporting plus the personal side of this profession.”
Warren said while the workload is increasing for these facilities, he thinks any effort to help increase transparency is worth it.
“If this additional information, and by formatting this data in a different way, helps public officials and helps local authorities to ensure that you have adequate resources and have the adequate support to prevent spread and contain spread where it does exist, then, lets do it,” Warren said. “At this point, particularly with the vulnerability of this population, we cannot leave any stone unturned. These people just matter too much.”