Mercy West Park in Western Hills has 47 confirmed coronavirus cases among residents and staffers as of Friday, May 1, 2020. (Photo: Meg Vogel/ The Enquirer)
COLUMBUS – Nearly 2,500 people have died of COVID-19 in Ohio’s nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, but state health officials continue to keep secret which facilities have reported deaths.
State health officials have released the names of the facilities where residents and staff members have become infected with the coronavirus but not where they lived before they died, citing privacy concerns.
Meanwhile, nursing homes have been reporting case and death information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since May 17. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services then reports facility-level information on its website.
But the CDC only requires that data fromnursing homes, not assisted living centers and intermediate care facilities. Since May, nursing homes have reported 1,550 deaths to the CDC – meaning the location of nearly 1,000 deaths in Ohio has not been reported.
An ongoing Enquirer review of death certificates from across the Cincinnati region has revealed deaths at assisted living facilities, none of which are in the federal database.
At least six linked to COVID-19 have happened at the Sheridan at Mason, death certificates reviewed by The Enquirer show. Five of the deaths at the Sheridan occurred over a span of just three days, from April 16-18. A fifth resident died in mid-May.
The Enquirer learned 16 people died at Mercy Franciscan West Park nursing home, the largest number among Cincinnati-arnursing homes, from reviewing state inspection reports.
Other states, including Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan, have made this information publicly available. The AARP and media organizations have been asking the state to disclose it for months.
On Friday, The Enquirer filed a complaint in the Ohio Court of Claims to obtain facility-level death information in addition to other records related to the COVID-19 response at long-term care facilities.
Partial data available
The Enquirer, The Columbus Dispatch and other news organizations first asked for the names of long-term care facilities with COVID-19 cases and deaths in early April.
The Ohio Department of Health denied The Enquirer’s request for that information on April 9, citing a law barring the agency from releasing “protected health information” without the consent of the individual.
Four days later, Gov. Mike DeWine said he would make case and death information available. The initial report, which only included cases, was riddled with errors and removed.
The next week, DeWine said those problems would be fixed and the state would move forward with reporting deaths by county, not by facility.
“We are balancing our application and content privacy, with our desire to be as transparent as the law allows us to do,” DeWine said during his April 20 news conference.
DeWine cited a 2016 Ohio Supreme Court case Cuyahoga Cty. Bd. of Heath v. Lipson O’Shea Legal Group as supporting that decision. Specifically, DeWine said, the court considered health information exempt “if it identifies or can be used to identify the individual who is the subject of the protected health information.”
At his Thursday coronavirus briefing, in response to a question from The Enquirer, DeWine said he thought that information was being made available but he would check to see if there’s a legal reason it wasn’t.
Arguments for and against releasing death data
Leading Age Ohio, whose members are nonprofit long-term care and hospice facilities, does not support releasing more detailed information about deaths.
Cases are a better indicator of risk in a facility for families and the public, said Leading Age Ohio communications director Patrick Schwartz. Schwartz said deaths are more indicative of a patient’s preexisting conditions than of a facility’s care for its residents.
“When you think of rural nursing homes, who might report a handful of deaths, it’s easy to trace back to where and when and who and they feel confidentiality may be breached,” Schwartz said.
The state releases the number of deaths by county on a weekly basis, dating back to April 15 – that number was 2,128 this week. The Ohio Department of Health has disclosed an additional 369 people died before April 15 who are not included in the public report.
AARP Ohio wants the state to release facility-level data daily, not just weekly, spokeswoman Michelle Shirer said. Shirer said that information helps people and their families make decisions about their health care and adds accountability.
“To be fair, not one state is doing this well overall in the country,” Shirer said. “There are some things Ohio is doing better than other states and they’re working on it.”
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