Legislators make bipartisan call for more data on COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes

Virginia National Guard soldiers and airmen collected samples for COVID-19 testing at a...
Virginia National Guard soldiers and airmen collected samples for COVID-19 testing at a long-term care facility April 28, 2020.(U.S. National Guard photo by Cotton Puryear)
Published: May. 6, 2020 at 7:48 AM EDT
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Members of Virginia’s General Assembly say there’s growing bipartisan frustration over the lack of public information about nursing homes with outbreaks of COVID-19.

The push for more transparency comes as the state continues to battle a growing number of outbreaks at long-term care facilities, which account for a significant portion of Virginia’s known coronavirus cases and more than half of the state’s — as of Tuesday — 713 deaths.

As global mortality rates continue to disproportionately affect the elderly, more than a dozen states, including Tennessee and Washington, D.C., have released the names of long-term care facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks. But Gov. Ralph Northam and other administration officials have repeatedly refused to identify specific sites, saying that doing so would violate a section of Virginia code governing patient privacy.

Many legislators, though, say the administration is relying on an overly strict interpretation of state law that shrouds vital information from the public eye. With no statewide reporting requirement, individual facilities are given the choice of whether to publicly disclose outbreaks. In some cases, staff members have identified sites by name when owners and managers have failed to come forward. And with no clear guidelines, there’s no guarantee that facilities will voluntarily share the information, said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Salem.

“The larger issue is that we don’t know what’s happening in every nursing home,” he said in a phone interview on Monday.

“That’s not the way any of us understand the law,” he added later. “I’d like [the administration] to come to the realization that this needs to be out there. I think the stakes are really high for a lot of people, and it’s important that families have this information to help their loved ones.”

In an email on Tuesday, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky pointed to multiple chapters of Title 32.1, a section of state code governing health care. The governor’s interpretation of the code is “based on guidance from the Virginia Commissioner of Health, in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General,” she wrote.

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