Northam changes position, releases nursing home virus data

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam answers a question during a press briefing inside the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond, Va., Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

RICHMOND— Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Friday that he will release the names of nursing homes that have had a coronavirus outbreak, a reversal from his previous stance that withholding the information could violate patients’ privacy.

Northam said he is directing the Virginia Department of Health to release the names on its website. He said the widespread nature of the COVID-19 pandemic makes it less likely that releasing the information will violate someone’s privacy or limit cooperation with a public health investigation.

“Governor Northam has always been committed to providing as much information as possible under state law,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement. “We are confident that given these new circumstances, this decision will ensure the maximum transparency allowed under the code.”

State officials have previously declined to disclose which nursing homes or other live-in medical facilities have reported cases or deaths from COVID-19, citing state code that they said treats a facility as a person when it comes to disclosure of health information.

At the same time, many families of residents who have been largely prohibited from visiting the facilities have told The Associated Press and other news outlets that they have had a hard time obtaining information at the height of outbreaks.

Northam also said his decision was prompted by faulty data released by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about nursing home cases, which the governor said had created confusion.

Republicans blasted Northam, saying he had the legal authority to release the names of the nursing homes much earlier.

“I cannot fathom the reasoning behind the governor’s announcement today,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert said. “Incompetence kills, and there is a great deal of incompetence from this governor.”

Minutes from a state task force meeting focused on dealing with the coronavirus in long-term care facilities show a discussion took place last month about the release of the data and concerns that it would create “a media frenzy.”

“We need to be thoughtful here at VDH about the communication strategy about this data release to minimize the backlash,” an unidentified meeting participant said in the minutes, which were provided to AP by the health department.

The virus has ravished nursing homes nationwide. About 1.4 million older and medically frail people live in such facilities, a tiny share of the American population that has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Most nursing home residents have been in lockdown since early March, isolated from families and friends even in death.

The Virginia data released Friday shows current outbreaks at about 70 long-term care facilities and indicates seven facilities have had 25 or more coronavirus-related deaths. There have been about 1,000 deaths at long-term care facilities in Virginia, accounting for about 60% of the state’s total virus-related deaths, according to state data.

Northam also announced Friday that the state would be spending an extra $246 million to help long-term care facilities address staffing and equipment shortages as well new coronavirus testing requirements. The state has a goal of testing every long-term care facility resident and staff by July 15.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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