Coronavirus deaths in nursing homes not being tracked, even as space for the dead runs out

Tuesday, April 14, 2020
By Paul Martin

by: Franz Walker
Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The federal government may no longer know the actual number of nursing home-related deaths due to coronavirus, despite the rising numbers. A chilling new report reveals that several key states, such as Florida, no longer provide official figures.

According to data gathered by NBC News from state agencies, nearly 2,500 long-term care facilities are battling coronavirus cases in 36 states, a massive 522 percent increase compared to a federal tally released on March 30, which showed that only 400 nursing homes had at least one case of the virus. In the process of making their own tally, the news team discovered that a number of states are not reporting data regarding coronavirus cases in nursing homes.

Deaths are underreported

In their report, NBC News tallied 2,246 deaths associated with long-term care facilities, based on responses from 24 states. However, this number is an undercount as around half of all states said they could not provide data on coronavirus-related deaths at nursing homes or declined to do so. Some of the states in question stated that they do not track these deaths at all.

Due to their advanced age and the prevalence of other health conditions, nursing home residents are among those most likely to die from the coronavirus. Despite this, the federal government does not keep a formal tally of the number of facilities with infections nor the number of coronavirus-related deaths in these facilities, the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

When asked, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — the federal agency that oversees long-term care facilities — stated that states must comply with state and local reporting requirements for coronavirus cases. The agency then referred questions to the CDC, though the latter has declined to comment.

The absence of federal reporting requirements creates a variation in state efforts to gather information on coronavirus infections in nursing homes as well as their willingness to disclose that information.

Some states, including those with large outbreaks such as California, Michigan and Pennsylvania, did not provide the number of deaths in nursing homes. Others, such as Maryland and Ohio, have cited state privacy laws as the reason they aren’t able to give out the names of affected facilities.

Other states are actively working to provide more information on coronavirus-related deaths in nursing homes. Connecticut already includes nursing home deaths as part of the state’s daily report on the outbreak and Massachusetts aims to follow suit. Colorado, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin also stated that they were working to provide more detailed information on nursing home deaths.

New York nursing home has run out of space for dead bodies
Of those states that gave out information, the one with the largest number of deaths was New York. Sixty percent of the deaths tallied by NBC News occurred in the state, with a tally of 1,300 residents and health care workers working in assisted living facilities have died.

The number of people dying in New York nursing homes is so high that some are actually running out of space to store the bodies of the deceased. Some, such as the Crown Heights Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, have had to make makeshift morgues after funeral homes couldn’t handle all the bodies.

At least one nursing home in the city has already run out of space even for a makeshift morgue. According to workers at the Chateau Brooklyn Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Sheepshead Bay in New York City, the number of deaths at the facility is so high that bodies are simply being left in their beds.

“They were putting them downstairs but now a lot of them are being left in their rooms,” a nurse at the nursing home said. “What else can you do right now?”

In response to this report, Chateau Brooklyn later sent out a statement saying that “no patient that passes away has ever been left in his or her bed.

As part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefing, officials stated that they wouldn’t detail the number of individual deaths at nursing homes due to privacy concerns. This is making the full scale of the impact hard to track even in a state where numbers are more accessible like New York.

According to experts, more comprehensive data on nursing homes is critical to understanding the spread of the coronavirus in nursing homes, especially why it’s spreading faster in some facilities than in others.

“It’s impossible to fight and contain this virus if we don’t know where it’s located,” said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School.

Grabowski added that more information-gathering and transparency could help protect against future outbreaks stating that “you could see where it could be headed next.”

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