If Gov. Gavin Newsom is serious about his pledge two weeks ago to protect residents of elder care homes from coronavirus, he will insist on transparency, stop the state and county stonewalling on data and reject the notion that abusive facilities should be protected from liability.

The alarming spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the Bay Area, across California and throughout the nation threatens the population of people most vulnerable to the deadly virus.

The number of U.S. coronavirus-related deaths in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities surpassed 10,000 this week, the Wall Street Journal reports. And that’s a gross undercount because some of the nation’s most-populous and hard-hit states, including California, Michigan, Ohio and Washington, don’t provide official counts.

Lest there be any doubt about the potential catastrophe in this country, the head of the World Health Organization’s Europe office said Thursday that up to half of coronavirus deaths there have been in long-term care homes for the elderly.

Meanwhile, in California, after Bay Area News Group reporters Thomas Peele and Annie Sciacca exposed large outbreaks at nursing homes in Orinda, Hayward, Castro Valley and San Jose, Newsom pledged on April 10 to make addressing the threat his “top priority.”

“This state has a disproportionate number of aging and graying individuals, and we have a unique responsibility to take care of them and their caregivers,” he said. He was right. Unfortunately, his administration’s response since has been disappointing.

The state still lacks the most-basic tool for fighting any outbreak: Accurate information. Without it, families have no idea whether their loved ones in care homes are in danger. And those looking to place people don’t know which ones are safe. There’s also no accurate real-time data with which to track the location and trend of the outbreaks.

We know from the cases we’ve reported that, in the East Bay and South Bay alone, there have been at least 505 cases of COVID-19 in care facilities and at least 27 deaths. We know from the state’s woefully inadequate data that at least 279 facilities across California have been affected, with at least 91 deaths. All those numbers are almost surely gross underestimates because of the paucity of information.

The blackout of information has been exacerbated in the four Bay Area counties we have focused on — Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara — by stonewalling from health officials who refuse to provide the most basic information.

They hide behind claims that disclosure would violate residents’ privacy. Alameda County cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal health privacy law commonly known as HIPAA. That’s bogus. No one is asking for divulgence of patients’ names or personal information.

County officials understand that because they had been providing information until the infections and deaths became widespread. Only then did they start trying to hide behind HIPAA.

Californians should know which care facilities have novel coronavirus cases, how many and how many deaths, and whether the victims are staff or residents. This is fundamental information that should be disclosed under the California Public Records Act.

Instead, the counties and the state are colluding in a cover-up. The counties refuse to turn over the information and direct inquiries to the state. The state, in turn, puts out the minimal, inaccurate lists. It’s shameful.

This critical information should be immediately required and compiled by the state, and updated and publicly disclosed daily.

Meanwhile, the industry, which is rife with bad actors, including one that’s the subject of a district attorney’s investigation, wants the governor to grant them immunity for their behavior. They want no administrative, civil or criminal liability for care they provide during the statewide coronavirus emergency.

State law already protects doctors, hospitals, pharmacists, nurses and dentists who render services during emergencies from liability for injuries sustained by their patients because of their care — unless it was caused a “willful act or omission.”

But that should not be extended to the facilities. It’s bad enough that state oversight of them has often been inadequate and is now minimal at best. Taking away any legal recourse for families would leave profiteers free of accountability for their actions. They would have no incentive for ensuring quality care and basic safety protections during the pandemic.

It’s stunning that five weeks after Newsom’s statewide shelter order we still don’t have a solid sense of the magnitude of the devastation in nursing homes across California. We should not have to be guessing at these numbers, nor where the cases and deaths have been.

The Newsom administration and the counties should know that information and be providing it in a timely manner to the public.


(c)2020 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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