On Wednesday, the Mississippi State Department of Health said that a third nursing home or other long-term care facility in Leflore County had a COVID-19 outbreak.

As with the first two, this newspaper started making calls to confirm the location, since the Department of Health refuses to name the facilities, claiming disclosure could violate a federal patient privacy law.

Golden Age Inc. and Crystal Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center had earlier acknowledged that they were on the list. We called all the other known long-term care facilities in the county. All of them said they had not had an outbreak.

This left three likely possibilities: the Department of Health made an error; there is a long-term care facility of which the Commonwealth is unaware; or someone was not telling the truth.

On Thursday, when the Department of Health released its update, the number of long-term care facilities with outbreaks dropped from three to one. Since the one resident at Golden Age who had been infected was now testing negative, that would explain one nursing home coming off the list. But what about the other?

The Department of Health said Friday that it had not made an error. Three facilities were on the list of active outbreaks, but by the next day, two of those cases had been closed. Who is No. 3? That remains a mystery.

Forcing the newspaper to dig for this information is a hassle that probably doesn’t bother anybody but us. What should bother the public, though, is that the lack of transparency could be enabling nursing homes to cover up their infection problems or unintentionally keeping the information from getting to all those who need to know it.

Supposedly, when either a resident or employee tests positive, the nursing home is obligated to inform the state, since its residents are among the most vulnerable to bad outcomes, including death, from COVID-19. As of Friday, there were 67 nursing homes in Mississippi with at least one case of the virus.

A positive test also triggers an obligation on the nursing home to inform all of its residents and employees as well as the residents’ family members, who themselves are currently not allowed into the facility for fear they might introduce the virus.

Because the Health Department doesn’t identify the nursing home, the public has to take it on faith that these steps are being taken and that the nursing home has complete and up-to-date contact information on the family members. It would be a lot easier to assure accountability and that no notifications are being missed by releasing the name of the facility.

The only thing preventing this is allegedly the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the 1996 law designed in part to ensure a patient’s medical condition is kept private.

It is a stretch, however, to claim that identifying XYZ Nursing Home as the site of an outbreak would somehow reveal the identity of the infected person. At least three states — Minnesota, Ohio and Connecticut — have concluded HIPAA does not bar releasing the names of the nursing homes. Another state, New York, the epicenter of the pandemic in this country, began releasing Friday the names of nursing homes with the worst outbreaks after being hit with criticism that its prior secrecy contributed to the death toll in them. About a fourth of the deaths in New York state have been to residents in these facilities.

The nursing homes don’t like being named because they fear the bad publicity and because of the possibility that panicky families will check the residents out without a proper way to care for them at home.

The latter is a legitimate concern. Still that does not trump the public’s right to know where there is a problem and what’s being done to address it so the infection doesn’t spread throughout the facility or out into the community.

From the onset of this disease, there have been repeated reports that nursing homes are a major area of worry.

The first U.S. outbreak of COVID-19 happened in a Washington state nursing home, where dozens have died. USA Today has conservatively tabulated that close to 10% of the total number of deaths from COVID-19 in this country have been to nursing home residents. In Mississippi, Lauderdale County became one of the state’s hot spots because of infected nursing homes.

Public health concerns certainly don’t justify the continued secrecy in Mississippi. The law probably doesn’t either.

The names of the nursing homes should be made public.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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