The writer is state director of AARP Nebraska.
Thousands of nursing home and assisted living facilities in the U.S. have experienced coronavirus outbreaks, and Nebraska’s own nursing facilities aren’t exempt. Residents are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to their advanced age and underlying health conditions. Worse, studies show the fatality rate for those over 80 is six times that of the rest of us. That’s why AARP Nebraska is calling for the state to shed light on what is happening in our nursing facilities, and to take swift and decisive action to ensure the health and safety of residents and staff.
As each day of the pandemic passes, family members, staff and communities are becoming increasingly worried about the health and safety of those inside nursing homes. The lack of transparency from state health officials only adds anxiety.
AARP Nebraska is urging state leaders to protect older adults living in long-term care facilities with a range of steps, including the public release of the names of nursing homes and assisted living communities with confirmed COVID-19 cases among residents or staff.
Right now, you may have a loved one living in a nursing home with a COVID-19 outbreak and not know it. Without that information, it is nearly impossible to make informed decisions on what’s best for your loved one.
There is no doubt that nursing home and assisted living staff are working diligently to protect the health of their residents, all the while trying to keep themselves and their own families safe and healthy. We applaud them for all they are doing. However, there is also no denying that our state’s nursing facilities have become a key source of COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 deaths. At his daily press conference last week, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced a total of 514 residents or staff in Nebraska nursing facilities had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, as of May 13, 71% of COVID-19 deaths in the state were related to the state’s nursing facilities, the fourth-highest rate in the nation.
That is a disturbingly high percentage and is clear evidence this disease is having a disproportionate impact on these vulnerable Nebraskans. Residents of nursing homes and assisted living communities are living in what is their home. They are not leaving or coming in contact with the general population, and they are not allowed to have visitors from the outside. Despite these protections, they are dying from COVID-19 at a higher rate than anyone else.
Providing transparency of which facilities are fighting COVID-19 outbreaks is critical for public health and the health and well-being of the residents and staff of these facilities. Moreover, residents and family members deserve to have this information for their own health decisions as they consider possible next steps and interventions for their loved ones.
To be clear, we are not advocating for the disclosure of any private patient information. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rightfully protects the privacy of the individual. It does not, however, preclude a state health agency from releasing the names of facilities, because those facilities are not a covered entity as defined by the law.
In response to AARP Nebraska’s request for transparency, Gov. Ricketts suggested family members could individually call facilities to ask if there have been any diagnosed COVID-19 cases. That’s a lot to ask families to do. It’s even more taxing to ask already overburdened nursing homes to respond daily to inquiries from families worried about their loved ones.
There is a simpler answer. The state should be transparent and regularly release the facility level information it has already collected.
Many states are disclosing this critical information, going so far as posting it daily on their health department’s website. Nursing facilities are ground zero in the fight against the coronavirus, and more information and greater transparency is a key tool in this fight.
Coronavirus has meant most residents can’t have in-person visitors. But it does not mean families can’t have answers. It’s time for full transparency and disclosure now, because information empowers families to act, speak up and protect those we love.