By John Tedesco, Emily Foxhall, Matt Dempsey and Jordan Rubio, Staff writers
As Texas health officials refuse to say which nursing homes are suffering coronavirus outbreaks, a federal agency has released its own data that identifies 150 facilities in Texas with COVID-19 cases and 72 nursing homes where residents died.
The preliminary data released last week by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency that regulates nursing homes, offers the first nationwide snapshot of how each facility is coping with a disease that is particularly dangerous for elderly residents.
In Texas, more than 1,920 nursing home residents had COVID-19 as of late May, and 321 died from the virus, according to the data. Mountain View Health & Rehabilitation in El Paso had the most confirmed cases in the state with 91 patients — a rate of 700 cases per 1,000 residents, putting it in the top 25 facilities in Texas with the highest rates of infection among residents, according to an analysis by Hearst Texas newspapers.
Mountain View also had 35 employees who contracted COVID-19, according to the data, but didn’t report any staffing shortages. A message left with the nursing home operator wasn’t returned Friday.
Nationally, 60,000 nursing home residents had COVID-19, and nearly 26,000 of them died. Facilities with low health and safety rankings by regulators were more likely to have large numbers of coronavirus infections, the federal agency said in a statement.
The coronavirus data was created under a new federal requirement for nursing homes to report COVID-19 infections, deaths and shortfalls in staffing or protective equipment to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Residents and advocates repeatedly have called for more transparency on how and where COVID-19 was spreading in nursing homes.
Federal officials note there are limitations in the data, which is expected to be updated weekly. Not every nursing home has complied with the new reporting measures. Some reports were incomplete. And the unavailability of coronavirus tests might prevent facilities from providing an accurate count of coronavirus cases, officials noted.
Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in San Antonio, where 18 residents and a staff member have died, is listed as not submitting a report. According to data from the Metropolitan Health District, an additional 75 residents and 29 workers at the facility tested positive for the virus. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which helps regulate the state’s nursing homes, is currently investigating the facility.
But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said the data will grow more accurate over time as more nursing home operators learn the reporting requirements, and a spokeswoman said the data will be a valuable tool to the public during an unprecedented crisis.
“The importance of ongoing transparency and information sharing has proven to be one of the keys to the battle against this pandemic,” the spokeswoman said.
Advocates for nursing home residents said the federal database reveals that far more needs to be done to protect the vulnerable.
“These numbers show what we have known for months, that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts the elderly with chronic diseases and the dedicated staff who care for them,” said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living. “Today’s report validates the need for the assistance that nursing homes have been calling for since the beginning of this pandemic.”
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has received more than two dozen requests for its own database of coronavirus outbreaks at nursing homes and long term care facilities. But the agency told the Texas attorney general’s office that privacy laws prohibit the release of the information — even though federal officials announced they planned to release their own version of the nursing home data.
The health commission didn’t respond to questions Friday, but a spokeswoman previously said the agency is balancing transparency with legal and privacy constraints.
“HHSC is working to release as much information as we are legally permitted to share publicly, in compliance with state and federal law,” spokeswoman Christine Mann said in an email.
A message left with a spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott wasn’t returned Friday. Abbott in May directed all nursing homes residents and staff to be tested for COVID-19, and that initiative was nearly finished Friday, with testing completed at 1,174 of 1,223 facilities.
State officials released statistics summarizing the confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths at nursing homes. As of June 5, Texas health officials said there were 466 nursing homes with confirmed COVID-19 patients and more than 4,300 cases. There have been 713 resident deaths.
It’s unclear why the state and federal counts for nursing homes are so different, but about a quarter of licensed nursing homes in Texas did not file reports to federal officials for the May 31 reporting period and any coronavirus cases at those facilities aren’t reflected in the database.
The federal data also doesn’t cover the most recent infection rates at nursing homes.
Aanand Naik, chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said he was glad to see county and city officials thinking carefully about how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in nursing homes.
To him, the data showed that even the best prepared states could not avoid the coronavirus getting into long-term care facilities. It wasn’t a failing of the industry, as he saw it. What mattered was once they did once they got a case.
“What will we do with it once we start to see cases? That’s what’s important,” he said. “It’s a dashboard that we’re going to have to keep watching.”
Rebecca Hennes, Stephanie Lamm and Taylor Goldenstein contributed to this report.