Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services discusses being able to disclose the numbers of COVID-19 cases in nursing home facilities.
Arizona Gov. Ducey Ducey doubled down on his administration's decision to withhold details about the spread of COVID-19 through nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
Ducey held a news conference Wednesday to announce changes to his stay-home orders to combat the pandemic, but the subsequent question-and-answer session became a combative exchange about the minimal information the state has released to the public.
It began with Dr. Cara Christ, head of the state's health department, suggesting the state would only release the names of long-term care facilities with COVID-19 cases if a judge ordered it.
Ducey and Christ then faced a barrage of questions about how relatives could gauge the safety of loved ones in nursing homes. The conference abruptly ended minutes later, when Ducey announced, "That is the answer. That will have to satisfy for now."
Long-term care facilities have been hard hit by the coronavirus in Arizona, with one Tucson nursing home alone seeing its COVID-19 cases more than double within the last month. At latest count, 60 residents of Sapphire Nursing Home and Rehab have been infected along with 30 staff members, according to a spokeswoman. One employee has told The Arizona Republic that at least 20 residents have died during the outbreak, many or all with COVID-19 symptoms. An assisted-living facility home in Chandler confirmed it has had at least 13 patients die of the disease.
Yet the state so far has released only one piece of data, the number of facilities with confirmed cases. It has released no information about which facilities are affected, how many residents have tested positive or how many have died.
In Maricopa County, health officials have released slightly more detail, and their numbers suggest cases in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, may be the most deadly element of the outbreak statewide.
In the county, residents of long-term care facilities, which include nursing homes, account for 62 percent of the county's 140 total COVID-19 deaths. About a hundred facilities have reported at least one case of COVID-19, and last week the first staffer at a long-term care facility died of the virus.
Statewide, a Republic analysis of the state's ZIP-code data found ZIP codes containing nursing homes had higher rates of infection than those without.
The Associated Press recently reported as many as 11,000 deaths among nursing home residents across the U.S. with many of the homes lacking adequate testing to control the outbreaks.
Their residents are at the greatest risk of death or severe illness from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus because many are elderly and have underlying medical conditions. And the highly contagious virus presents an unprecedented challenge to nursing home staff, many of whom are already stretched thin.
Arizona's largest advocacy group for retirees, AARP Arizona, has said the public doesn't know the full extent of the outbreaks because the state doesn't release the names of facilities with COVID-19 cases, unlike what many other states have done.
Gov. Doug Ducey announces a partial reopening to start May 4 and May 8, plus how they are working to open restaurants later in May.
'Care and attention' to nursing homes
Ducey said he wanted to "push back" on criticism that his administration wasn't being transparent when it comes to nursing homes.
"There is an incredible amount of care and attention" given to long-term care facilities, said the governor, who frequently mentions that his 96-year-old grandmother lives in assisted living.
One of his first executive orders related to COVID-19 was ordering ADHS to set emergency rules that limited visitors, set strict infection-control standards and separated residents who exhibited symptoms.
Ducey told reporters at the Wednesday press conference that, "you see them as places. I see them as people."
He then deferred to Christ to talk about why the names of facilities weren't being released.
Christ said that long-term facilities are where people live, and state law protects personal information about communicable diseases and their addresses from being disclosed.
She said if a court disagrees with that interpretation, "I will happily release that."
Christ added that family members of residents at facilities with COVID-19 cases are being informed by the facility if there are positive cases. And she seemed to question the value of knowing how many cases of COVID-19 a specific facility had.
"I would not rank the number of deaths in a facility and use that against a facility," she said, "because this is a very hard disease to treat in this population."
Last SlideNext Slide'Maddening' lack of information
ADHS, the governor's office and county health departments have repeatedly refused to provide the names of long-term care facilities with COVID-19 cases to The Republic, citing patient privacy.
AARP Arizona asked the governor earlier this month to make the names public.
Many AARP members have expressed concerns about cases of COVID-19 in Arizona's long-term care facilities, said Dana Marie Kennedy, state director for AARP Arizona.
Kennedy said that while privacy concerns are understandable, the federal law that protects patient medical records applies to individuals, not facilities.
Kennedy said disclosing the facility names would help families make decisions about whether to move their relatives if the facility had a COVID-19 outbreak. Conversely, families worried about COVID-19 could feel reassured if the facility where their loved one resides wasn't on the list.
"We’re just trying to make sure families have information to make decisions," she said.
On Wednesday, Kennedy called the governor's decision to repeatedly refuse to release the information "maddening" and said families shouldn't have to go to court to get critical information.
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Have you heard reports of Arizona nursing homes with cases of COVID-19? Contact reporter Anne Ryman with your tips at: email@example.com or 602-444-8072. Follow her on Twitter @anneryman.
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