Amid mounting public pressure, the Minnesota Department of Health released stark new data on the deadly impact of the novel coronavirus on long-term care facilities across the state.
The data were released late Friday in response to a threat of a legislative subpoena by a prominent lawmaker and provide the most detailed look yet into the types of long-term care facilities where people are dying of the virus and the state’s efforts to contain its spread through more aggressive testing and inspections.
As public health experts had warned, residents and staff of Minnesota’s nursing homes are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, accounting for two-thirds of all deaths in long-term care. As of June 1, nursing homes reported 2,973 cases and 608 deaths from the virus statewide. Assisted-living facilities, which typically provide a less-intensive level of care, had 1,243 cases and 259 deaths, the state said. Another 29 residents have died of the virus in specialized memory care units, the agency said.
Large and deadly clusters of the virus have begun appearing in more nursing homes, where a combination of factors — chronic understaffing, infection-control problems, tight living quarters and a frail population — have contributed to the virus’ spread.
In Minnesota, nursing homes house and care for about half as many residents as less regulated assisted-living facilities. However, they tend to care for older people with more underlying health conditions. They also have more dense physical layouts, with residents often doubled up in rooms and as many as four people sharing a single bathroom. The hospital-like design of many nursing homes was intended to be cost-efficient, but it has contributed to the rapid spread of the virus, public health experts maintain.
The nursing homes that have been hit hardest are St. Therese of New Hope, with 67 deaths, and North Ridge Health and Rehab, also of New Hope, with 57 deaths. Another 38 people have died at Southview Acres Healthcare Center in West St. Paul; and 29 have died at Augustana Chapel View Care Center in Hopkins, according to the state data released Friday.
The information released Friday follows on the heels of a trove of data released last week by the federal government, which also included facility-level information on COVID-19 outbreaks. For the first time, members of the public can search by nursing home facility name on the federal website Nursing Home Compare to identify the scope of the outbreaks in specific facilities. However, the federal data exclude assisted-living facilities, which are part of the state’s report.
Until the state released this accounting, families with relatives in long-term care had repeatedly been denied information on the size of the COVID-19 outbreaks in specific facilities. Without such data, some families argued, they had difficulty making informed decisions about where to place their loved ones. In some cases, residents and families said facilities did not tell them that COVID-19 had spread widely in their facilities, making it impossible to avoid the contagion.
The Department of Health had initially withheld information on the scope of outbreaks in individual long-term care facilities, citing concerns that it could potentially expose the identities of those infected. The agency relented, however, after weeks of public pressure from senior advocacy groups and state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, who oversees a Senate aging committee. Frustrated by what she considered a lack of response to her inquiries, Housley wrote a letter to Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm threatening to subpoena her agency if it did not comply with requests for more facility-level data.
Since early April, Housley has been pushing for more disclosure and universal COVID-19 testing in long-term care facilities. She expects to introduce legislation in the upcoming special session that would mandate the state to pay for the testing with the $1.87 billion in federal funds Minnesota has received to cover coronavirus-related costs.
“I sincerely appreciate Commissioner Malcolm’s timely response to my letter,” Housley said in a statement. “However, it’s also clear the [Walz] administration should consider a more transparent approach when it comes to public disclosure. Perhaps never more than in a public health crisis, Minnesotans have a right to know what is happening.”
The Department of Health also released information on hundreds of infection-control surveys it has conducted of nursing homes since late March, when the agency shifted its priority toward infection control during inspections. Currently, 29% of facilities surveyed were found to be out of compliance with infection prevention and control guidelines and were issued citations, the state said.
Lawmakers and elder care advocates have also raised concerns about transfers of COVID-19 patients from hospitals and other facilities into long-term care. The practice has been widespread. All told, 319 of the 863 facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks have had an infected patient transfer from another facility or discharged back to the facility from a hospital, state records show.
The Department of Health said, in its response to Housley, that “there are no facilities whose outbreaks started because they accepted a COVID-positive patient from a hospital.”