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Knowledge of nursing home cases is vital

Family members of loved ones who live in Ohio nursing homes and assisted living facilities absolutely have a right to know the extent of COVID-19’s effects on the nursing home, particularly these days of strict limitations on access and visitation.

At this point in my life, I have no relatives residing in long-term care facilities, but I know many readers who do. Visitation restrictions have been imposed logically to help stop the spread of COVID-19; still, it is adding new stress to those who are unable to visit and check first-hand on family members who live there and are unable to care for themselves.

That’s why I was pleased to hear the new order from Gov. Mike DeWine and director of Ohio Department of Health Dr. Amy Acton now requiring care center operators to notify all residents and family members within 24 hours of confirmation that a resident or staff member has contracted COVID-19. Additionally, the list of those facilities and the number of cases in each will be posted on the state health department’s COVID-19 website: coronavirus.ohio.gov.

As a journalist, I often write here about the importance of access to information, and this is exactly the kind of information to which I’m referring. Frequently reporters on my staff seek important information from hospitals, responding firefighters or paramedics and others only to be told that information is confidential due to HIPAA laws.

Yes, HIPAA was enacted to guarantee privacy for individual medical patients. However, it should not be used as an excuse to slow or stop the release of statistics, data or simple facts about number of cases that don’t identify patients. That is information the media and the public absolutely should have the ability to access.

Now, this is not to say that long-term care facilities are in any way responsible for the spread of novel coronavirus in their facilities.

Dr. Acton made that clear when she noted that stigma and fear are often associated with long-term care facilities, and she made clear that a COVID-19 outbreak inside a nursing home, in many cases, is not the fault of the facility.

Still, nursing homes are prime locations for growth of COVID-19 because their residents are elderly, often with underlying medical conditions. Nationwide we’ve heard reports of multiple COVID-19 deaths — sometimes well into double digits — in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

That’s why access to this information is critical. And now it is a legal right.

DeWine was firm in announcing the order.

“This is not a request,” he stated Monday.

Of course, one would hope that nursing home administrators would understand during this time of fear and concern the importance of sharing information like this with residents and families of residents about confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their facilities. I believe most would do that.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case, though.

The Associated Press reported last week on a case out of Columbus in which a woman said her mother was admitted to a nursing home near the end of March without any knowledge that an employee there had tested positive just days earlier. A week later, the woman’s mother left the nursing home after she was diagnosed with the coronavirus. It is not known where she contracted the disease.

Some nursing home officials do want more information, though. A trade-group executive explained to the AP that one concern is a nursing home accepting a transfer from a facility where COVID-19 is present.

At least 45 Ohio nursing home residents and / or staff members have succumbed to COVID-19.

Clearly, it is a serious threat to the older and infirm that Ohioans entrusted to long-term care facilities by loved ones. Local and state officials should be more forthcoming about how the coronavirus is affecting nursing homes. It may be a matter of life or death for some of the Buckeye State’s most vulnerable residents.

Information is knowledge. Acton and DeWine were right to take this action.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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