CINCINNATI — More than 2,500 residents of Ohio’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities have died of COVID-19, but state officials continue to keep secret the names of the facilities tied to those deaths.
On Thursday, WCPO filed a complaint in the Ohio Court of Claims to obtain that information. It joins the AARP and other media organizations from across the state that have been demanding that data for months.
“We believe our role as a public watchdog is important," WCPO 9 senior director of local content Mike Canan said. "And it is vital that the public know what is happening with our most vulnerable citizens in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. That’s why our reporters have been diligently reporting on this topic and why we are pushing for the state to release these important records.”
WCPO first asked state health officials for information about deaths in long-term care facilities in Southwest Ohio in June.
“The Ohio Department of Health is not releasing deaths at long term care facilities by facility for COVID-19 or any other cause of death. We are only reporting it at the county level. A person could be too identifiable and that information is ‘protected health information,’ as defined in … the Ohio Revised Code,” a health department spokesperson responded to WCPO.
Nursing home and long-term care residents account for 66 percent of total COVID-19 deaths in Ohio, according to state health data. Earlier this summer that population was accounting for 70 percent of total COVID deaths reported in Ohio.
While Ohio officials refuse to disclose the number of COVID deaths linked to each long-term care facility, other states such as Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, West Virginia and Michigan do report that data.
Elaine Ryan, vice president for state advocacy at the AARP, urged Ohio officials in July to release daily totals of cases and deaths at each long-term care facility.
“We looked at Ohio’s law. They can release those (facility) names. There’s nothing in the law that precludes them from doing so,” Ryan said in a July interview. “We’re in a pandemic where information matters.”
But state health officials continue to cite privacy concerns as the reason they can’t release that information.
“Not releasing death information in nursing homes is in line with our policies to reduce unnecessary intrusion into people’s lives. It is not fair to the family of the patient who passed away or to the facility about releasing this information without their approval … Adding more data to that already released, could make it easier for the public to identify the person who has passed away,” ODH spokesperson Melanie Amato wrote in an email to WCPO on July 31.
Indiana state officials released nursing home death information in July after months of pressure from the AARP and media outlets such as WCPO’s sister station in Indianapolis, WRTV.
Last week the Indiana Department of Health launched a public dashboard for nursing homes, detailing how the pandemic has affected every facility in the state.
The Ohio Department of Health has a similar public dashboard that it updates with weekly totals of COVID cases at each long-term care facility, but the dashboard does not disclose how many people have died at those facilities and only reflects cases since April 15.
“Let the taxpayers know what’s going on," Ryan said. "Let families know how they can make life and death decisions on behalf of their loved ones who have little to no information in those facilities."
Nursing homes have been reporting case and death information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since mid-May. That facility-level information is available on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website. However, the website does not show COVID deaths at assisted living or other long-term care facilities.
A WCPO analysis of that data shows most nursing homes in Ohio had zero COVID deaths. But several had fatal outbreaks with dozens of deaths, including a nursing home in Kenton with 59 COVID deaths since mid-May.
Several nursing homes in Southwest Ohio have experienced more than 10 resident deaths from COVID since mid-May, according to the CDC data.