CINCINNATI — More than 7,700 people have died of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities in Ohio since the pandemic began.
But where they died is still a secret in the state of Ohio.
WCPO filed a complaint against the Ohio Department of Health last August for that public information and won in the Court of Common Claims.
Now the health department has appealed its loss to the 10th District Court of Appeals, delaying the release of that information if WCPO is successful by months, just as COVID cases in nursing homes are rising again.
“Why exactly is the Ohio Department of Health fighting this,” asked WCPO attorney Darren Ford. “What is the benefit to the public of the Ohio Department of Health not releasing this information to us?"
Attorneys for Ohio’s health department tried to argue that death information is private under state law. Special Master Jeff Clark disagreed, noting that the information is already available on death certificates, which are public records. He ruled that officials violated the state’s public records law when they refused to release the number of COVID-19 deaths at a Cincinnati nursing home. A judge later adopted that ruling.
WCPO and other media outlets have been fighting for more transparency against state health officials, who refuse to say how many residents die of COVID-19 at each nursing home. Other states, such as Kentucky, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia, openly release this information to the public.
In an interview last April, Joy Gazaway said that information would have helped her choose a nursing home for her 60-year-old brother, Donald Gazaway, who died in 2020 of COVID. He died three weeks after he arrived at a Cincinnati nursing home to recover from a stroke.
“I wanted to know what the stats were, particularly with mortality, because that would better enable me to make some choices,” Gazaway said. “I need to see something more than the (nursing home) front lobby and the furniture and the fact that you have an aquarium… I need to see what type of care, what level of care, that I can expect at this facility.”
Ford said it could be six months or longer until the court rules on the appeal. The court is expected to set a date for oral arguments soon.
WCPO asked the Ohio Department of Health on July 22 to provide the dollar amount it has spent on legal fees with a private law firm on this case. WCPO has not received a response to that public records request.
Meanwhile, COVID cases inside Ohio’s long-term care facilities are rebounding after a sharp drop-off earlier this summer. The latest data from the Ohio Department of Health show 297 residents and 401 staff members currently have COVID as of Aug. 31.
“Anyone who has a loved one in a nursing home or a care facility wants to understand that risk,” Ford said. “The death rates that are occurring with the new variant, even after widespread vaccination of the elderly population, that’s information that will affect your individual decision-making.”
Of the top five Ohio facilities with the most cases of COVID currently, three of them are in Southwest Ohio.
The Hearth and Care Center in Highland County has 20 resident and nine staff COVID cases, which is the highest total in the state. Batavia Nursing Center in Clermont County and Willow Knoll Post Acute and Senior Living in Highland County each have 17 resident and three staff members with current COVID cases, according to ODH data.
WCPO reached out to all three facilities for this story. We only heard back from a spokesperson at Willow Knoll, who responded with this statement.
“Staff and residents are fully vaccinated. And in light of the pandemic, we have enhanced our infection-control protocols in a number of ways … restricting non-medically necessary visits to our facility, screening employees and residents for symptoms and high temperatures, isolating persons who show signs or symptoms, and avoiding group activities where possible,” wrote Willow Knoll spokesman Dan Kramer.
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control show that 79 percent of residents in Ohio’s long-term care facilities are fully vaccinated for COVID. Yet just over half of health care workers inside those facilities, or 53 percent, have been fully vaccinated.
“It is safer now that most residents are vaccinated," said Bob Vines, managing ombudsman for the nonprofit Pro Seniors Inc. "It is safer still if more staff are vaccinated.”
He is hopeful that rising COVID cases won’t cause nursing homes to stop visitation. WCPO interviewed many families over the past year who described the painful isolation that their loved ones endured when visitation was suspended for months during the height of the pandemic.
“Closing down visitation is not necessary as long as safety protocols can be met,” Vines said. “When the location of an outbreak is identified, it is only that area that needs to have visitation suspended.”