As the number of deaths in nursing homes from COVID-19 surpassed 1,000 on Tuesday, the state announced it will pause a key component of its plan for testing residents of long-term care facilities.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders at a State House news conference said the state would temporarily stop shipping coronavirus test kits to nursing homes. Long-term care facilities appeared to be ill-equipped to collect the samples properly, officials said in subsequent statement.
Repeated, universal testing of nursing home residents and staff is widely seen as a key to containing the epidemic in long-term care facilities, which have emerged as an epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis.
On April 8, the state announced nursing homes could order test kits to be delivered to their facilities and administered by trained personnel. The option was an alternative to the mobile testing program in which the state deployed Massachusetts National Guard members to administer tests at nursing homes.
But after sending out 14,000 tests, Sudders said only 4,000 were returned, and many of those, the state said in a statement to The Boston Globe, were unlabeled or in leaking tubes. Sudders said the state will continue to offer mobile testing through the National Guard while they work through the problems with the test kit program.
News of the setback came as the state released new data showing 1,059 residents of Massachusetts long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19, making up 54 percent of all deaths from the virus statewide.
The state also reported Tuesday that the overall death toll from the coronavirus outbreak had risen by 152 cases to 1,961, and the number of confirmed coronavirus cases had climbed by 1,556 to 41,199. The Department of Public Health also reported a total of 175,372 people in the state had been tested, up from 169,398 a day earlier.
The rising death toll in nursing homes has some worried families agonizing over whether to pull loved ones out of long-term care. On Tuesday state health officials released a checklist for those families to consider, advising them to be sure residents who move out have safe places to live, the necessary services and support, and a backup plan.
State officials for weeks resisted calls to release data that could help families make those difficult decisions: information about the number of cases and deaths in specific nursing homes. On Monday state officials took a step toward greater transparency. But the new information they made public was vague and riddled with inaccuracies.
It initially listed the Belmont Manor Nursing Home as located in Western Massachusetts. On Tuesday, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, site of the state’s most deadly outbreak, was not even listed. Some case counts also appeared to be off.
“I’m looking forward to the day when we’re perfect in reporting data in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It probably won’t occur in my lifetime,” Sudders said.
Corrections were made to the data on Tuesday, but some nursing home operators said some numbers for COVID-19 cases and licensed beds remained inaccurate. Sudders said the state would clean up the data.
The state House of Representatives on Tuesday passed legislation that would require much fuller disclosure, requiring long-term care facilities to report, and the state to disclose, daily figures on resident and staff cases and deaths.
The Baker administration’s data lacks such specificity. It offers a range, not a specific number of cases, at each facility — less than 10, between 10 and 30 or more than 30. It does not list the number of deaths at each facility. And some families and operators disputed the accuracy of the numbers.
“The first thing I looked at was my mother’s facility and it’s not accurate. If it’s inaccurate for all the facilities, what good is it? It’s just garbage," said one woman whose mother lives at Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing in Springfield, and who requested anonymity.
The state report said Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing has 15 beds, but there are actually 42 beds in the skilled nursing facility, said chief executive Margaret Mantoni. Fourteen residents have tested positive, she said; two have died. The state data listed fewer than 10 cases.
Mantoni and her staff send out two e-mails daily to keep families informed.
“As best we can, we are trying,” Mantoni said.
The state data also appeared to list incorrect information for Pine Knoll Nursing Center in Lexington. The state said the facility had more than 30 cases, but administrator Matt Sweeney said it had only 21 cases. Wednesday, he added, each of those 21 residents will have completed their 14-day quarantine.
Reports of significant outbreaks continued Tuesday. St. Joseph Manor in Brockton, where the National Guard has conducted tests, confirmed 16 deaths.
“We share the community’s concern and heartbreak as we work tirelessly to mitigate the devastating toll the virus is having on frail seniors,” said administrator Jim Keane.
Most operators of nursing homes with the largest numbers of cases either did not respond to inquiries on Tuesday or issued prepared statements saying they follow public health guidance and were guarding the privacy of residents.
Some, though, stressed the importance of transparency.
National Guard lab technicians two weeks ago found 47 residents tested positive and 40 negative at the Holy Trinity Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, a Worcester facility run by the Eastern Orthodox church, said administrator Ellen Belanger. She said Guard technicians will return for another round of testing Wednesday.
Belanger, who said two Holy Trinity residents have died, said residents and their families appreciate open communication. “It doesn’t mean they’re not going to be anxious," she said. "But we try to over communicate.”
Al Norman, an advocate for nursing home residents, said the facilities listing was a step in the right direction but it contained “significant holes and gaps.”
“Not listing deaths in these facilities is a strange oversight," he said.
State health officials didn’t immediately respond to questions about how many older residents have been pulled out of long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 crisis.
Linda Vitagliano of Natick said her family considered bringing her 89-year-old mother home from her assisted-living residence in Boca Raton, Fla., after the facility said a woman there had been infected with COVID-19.
But bringing her to Massachusetts presents risks, Vitagliano said. Her mother would have to take an airplane here and, if Vitagliano got sick, the family would have to scramble to identify new care options.
“It’s too risky,” she said.