There's new hope for families struggling to find out how many positive COVID-19 cases or deaths have happened at their loved ones' nursing homes. The federal government is gearing up to release that information even though some states, like Virginia, have been keeping it secret.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which regulates nursing homes, says it plans to post the name of each facility online, along with the number of positive cases and deaths among its residents and staff.
"We just really heard from patients and families on the front lines and their concerns- and so we changed the regulations, which is very unprecedented," CMS Administrator Seema Verma told the News4 I-Team.
Verma said a shift like this can sometimes take years, but it's being done in weeks because it's so important.
Nursing homes have always had to tell families about a change in their own loved one's condition and report outbreaks to the health department. But starting next week, they'll have to tell the CDC how many positive COVID-19 cases and deaths they've had among their residents and staff, and that information will be reported weekly going forward.
"There's over 15,000 nursing homes. So you can imagine that this is a big effort," said Verma. "This has never been done before and so we want to make sure everything goes smoothly."
Coronavirus Cases in DC, Maryland and Virginia
COVID-19 cases by population in D.C. and by county in Maryland and Virginia
The facilities are expected to file their first report by May 17. If they haven't filed by May 31, they'll be issued a warning letter.
If facilities fail to report their COVID-19 cases by June 7, they'll be issued a $1,000 fine, which escalates the longer the facility is in violation.
The program includes creation of a new electronic reporting system in which the facilities will file their reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will analyze the data and share it with CMS, which will then post it for the public to review. The agency is still determining how quickly it will be able to turn the data around publicly.
"We know that patients and their families really want this information. So we're committed to not only being transparent, but to do this as quickly as possible," Verma said.
Verma said transparency is essential and she believes that's something families will consider when looking for a nursing home for a loved one in the future.
It's particularly important in states like Virginia, where the health department has refused to disclose the names of the 150 long-term care facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks, citing the need for privacy. Nearly 59% of the deaths statewide have come from those locations.
The new rules also require facilities to contact residents and their families by 5 p.m. the following day about any confirmed cases at their facility.
For weeks, the I-Team has been working to compile the names of each Virginia long-term care facility with positive COVID-19 cases, utilizing crowd-sourced data from viewers who have family members living in the facilities and tipsters who work in and around these facilities.
Frustrated family members struggling to get information from facilities continue to reach out to the I-Team saying they didn't learn of a facility outbreak until their own loved one became critically ill. Verma said CMS has also heard from families seeking answers.
"Not being able to see your family and have visitors, it's just really hard," Verma said. "That's something that those of us that are working on these issues day in and day out ... we think about that. And it's always a part of our decision making."