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License to Neglect

Published on May 28th, 2020

Nursing-home residents’ lawyers, families, and advocacy groups are warning that moves by several states to shield the facilities from Covid-19-related litigation could cover up abuse or negligence in the crisis-hit sector.

Two residents of the Citadel Salisbury in Salisbury, N.C., filed suit against the nursing home and its corporate owners in late April, alleging the facility was understaffed, asked employees with Covid symptoms to come to work, and allowed Covid-positive and Covid-negative residents to share restrooms.

Reporter Jan Ransom’s father was the fourth resident of his nursing home to get COVID-19. Nobody told her about the first, so she couldn’t move him before he got sick. “I think that’s very unfair,” her father told her a week before he died.  Ransom wrote an article for ProPublica explaining her story.

Her father and some of the other residents were still being allowed to move around the nursing home without masks and were never warned that the virus had entered the 159-bed facility. And while my father had symptoms of the disease — a persistent dry cough, diarrhea, fever, headaches and body aches — no one at the home, including the doctor who called to follow up with me about his persistent cough, told him or me that they suspected he might have the virus.

Shortly after being admitted to the hospital, her father tested positive for COVID-19. Hours later, she called the nursing home to alert the staff. A nursing home staffer told her that her father was not the first resident to test positive. He was the fourth. She was stunned.

Other journalists at the Times and elsewhere have been writing about the toll the virus was taking on nursing homes, killing hundreds of residents and infecting thousands more. As she read those harrowing stories, her dad was never far from my thoughts.

After realizing the nursing home had failed to disclose, she wanted to contact her father’s roommate and the families of other residents at the facility who were unaware of the storm brewing inside. When I called the state Department of Health to complain on her family’s behalf, she was informed that nursing homes were not obligated to tell families when the virus is detected in other residents.

“Guidelines require nursing home operators to notify a resident’s family of illness, they do not require notification to relatives of other residents,” a Department of Health spokesman later said in a statement.

A day later the policy had changed. The Department of Health is now directing nursing home officials to tell residents and families within 24 hours of learning of a suspected COVID-19 case. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention then announced that nursing home providers will be required to report potential infectious disease outbreaks not only to state health departments but directly to federal health officials to accelerate efforts to contain outbreaks.

The lack of notification deprived us of the chance to move my father out of the nursing home before he got sick. “I think that’s very unfair,” my father said more than a week before he died. “They have no consideration — in other words you’re just cattle. It goes to show a great indifference.”

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