If you accept the state data released this week about the coronavirus’ scourge of long-term-care facilities, no staff members at the Philadelphia Nursing Home in Fairmount have gotten the disease — and across the city’s 47 nursing homes, fewer than 20 staffers have tested positive.
That would be wonderful news for seniors in those facilities and their loved ones. Staff members who carry the virus without showing symptoms all too often bring the disease into the homes, with deadly results.
But neither of those statements is accurate. In fact, 30 staff members at the Philadelphia Nursing Home alone have tested positive for the virus, according to the city, which owns the 402-bed facility.
When the state on Tuesday released much-anticipated data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes, residents and staff hoped it might provide a fuller picture of the pandemic’s toll on those vulnerable facilities, which have been shrouded in secrecy despite being involved in about two-thirds of coronavirus deaths in Pennsylvania.
The data, however, have proved to be highly unreliable, and drastically minimize the virus’ impact on Philadelphia nursing homes, according to a comparison of the new state records and a previous city database obtained exclusively by The Inquirer.
Family members have been unable to visit inside since March, and have complained they were left in the dark about where the outbreaks were occurring.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Wednesday acknowledged problems with the data, which it had kept hidden until federal regulators required it to be disclosed.
The state blamed the nursing homes, which it regulates. “They did not report completely, or in some cases at all, and so the data had to be reported through another method,” Nate Wardle, a spokesperson for the Health Department, said in a statement. "We are constantly working to make sure the data we provide is accurate.”
Zachary Shamberg, head of a trade group representing Pennsylvania senior centers, said inaccurate information could undermine the trust residents and their families have in nursing homes.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a son or a daughter or a grandson or a granddaughter or the wife or a husband of a resident, and the numbers released yesterday by the Department of Health are inconsistent with the numbers shared with you by that facility’s administrator,” said Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association. “Once people lose confidence in those caring for their loved ones, you can’t get that confidence back, and that’s what was done yesterday.”
The data perplexed some operators and workers at the facilities. A nurse at Maplewood Nursing & Rehabilitation Center said the state’s tallies for the Germantown facility — 34 coronavirus cases and five deaths among residents, no cases among staff members — were severe undercounts.
More than 60 Maplewood residents have had the virus, including 45 currently residing in the facility’s wing for COVID-19 patients, and 15 have died, said the nurse, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because staff at the facility do not have permission to speak to reporters. Additionally, at least 15 staff members have had the virus or are sick from it, the nurse said.
“I’m appalled,” the nurse said. “Don’t make it a cover-up. Just explain what it is.”
The nurse said it was important for the state and facilities to be accurate about outbreaks and not downplay the spread of the virus “if you want people to social distance when you have a facility where they’re in close quarters.”
A lawyer for the New York-based Bedrock Care Group, which owns the facility, said in a statement that Maplewood follows state data reporting rules “and will continue to do so.”
Potential undercounts in the new data are widespread, the comparison with the previously released city data indicated. St. Ignatius Nursing & Rehab Center in West Philadelphia, for instance, was listed as having 11 residents with COVID-19 in the new state data, which is far below the 49 cases documented by Philadelphia’s Public Health Department last month.
St. Ignatius was one of 11 care homes that the recent state data showed as having fewer positive cases than the city had documented. In all, these facilities were said to have 184 fewer cases than the city listed in April.
The city’s inadvertent release of coronavirus counts last month did not identify how many care-home workers had contracted the virus. The state release shows almost none, even at Chapel Manor, where at least 123 residents caught the virus and 27 died. Indeed, of Philadelphia’s 58 nursing homes and assisted living facilities, 52 showed zero cases among workers.
Only six facilities had numbers for sick workers, but in each example fewer than five were sick, so the state didn’t share the number.
That pattern is challenged by the experience at senior facilities in nearby counties. In Bucks County, three-quarters of the facilities had positive case counts for workers. At Neshaminy Manor Home, one of the hardest-hit in the county with 39 fatalities, the state reported 96 residents and 43 workers caught the virus. Powerback Rehabilitation in Chester County’s Exton reported more sick workers than residents. The data show 28 employees have had the coronavirus, but only nine residents.
Even with the state data’s limitations, it did shed light on a tragic, if unsurprising, reality: Nearly all Philadelphia nursing homes have seen residents die from the coronavirus.
Of the 44 nursing homes listed in the state data, only Presbyterian Center for Continuing Care listed no deaths.
In all, 54% of the city’s 1,152 coronavirus deaths have been of nursing home residents.