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Full disclosure on deaths at nursing homes will take time, state officials say

New law mandates detailed reporting of COVID-19 cases but governor is moving to scale it back

The Falls at Cordingly Dam in Newton. Some of its residents have died of coronavirus complications.
The Falls at Cordingly Dam in Newton. Some of its residents have died of coronavirus complications.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

State public health officials say they need more time to comply with a new law requiring them to provide the precise number of COVID-19 deaths and cases at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other senior residences throughout Massachusetts.

The Department of Public Health has so far provided limited data about outbreaks at the facilities, following pressure from the news media, lawmakers, and advocates.

A bill sponsored by Representative Ruth Balser, Democrat of Newton, mandating that the state significantly ramp up reporting about long-term-care sites, was passed by the Legislature late last month and signed by Governor Charlie Baker early this month.

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The agency said it hopes to provide additional data in “coming weeks,” but did not provide a date.

“DPH is currently working to implement all requirements of the new data reporting law,” spokeswoman Ann Scales said in a written statement.

Scales also said the state has already provided more data than many other states and has earned the highest marks from a national COVID tracking project for its reporting efforts.

Still, details on coronavirus outbreaks at individual assisted-living facilities are particularly sparse. Currently, the state’s weekly published summaries lack information on the number of deaths at each assisted-living facility, information that is available in New York and Connecticut, for example.

These fatalities are not included in the DPH’s death toll at long-term-care facilities, a number that is approaching 5,000 — more than 60 percent of pandemic-related deaths in the state.

And the public health agency provides infection numbers at assisted-living facilities and nursing homes only in broad ranges, such as 11-30 or greater than 30. The figures combine cases of both staff and residents, making it difficult to tell which homes have blocked the virus from spreading between residents and employees.

Advocates insist the precise figures are important, both for researchers studying ways the facilities can contain the virus and for family members who are trying to protect their loved ones.

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“You cannot understand the full extent of the problem without the numbers,” said Alison Weingartner, executive director of Massachusetts Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.

The state has begun reporting nursing home fatalities but has so far declined to provide the exact toll for facilities with four or fewer deaths, instead listing deaths in a “1-4″ range.

Before Baker signed the measure into law, the DPH said it was withholding the precise number of deaths at nursing homes with few deaths to make it harder to identify individuals who had died. But their names can typically be found in publicly available death certificates and obituaries, and information on deaths has long been considered public record in Massachusetts.

Baker is also seeking to scale back some of the new reporting requirements. The governor has filed a bill that would eliminate a mandate to publish data about infections at other types of elderly housing, including independent senior living sites. The residences, often affiliated with assisted-living facilities, are not regulated by the DPH or the elder affairs agency.

In a letter to lawmakers, Baker said it makes sense to collect data from nursing homes and other health care providers, but not from private landlords who lack access to residents’ health records.

Balser, who sponsored the legislation requiring greater disclosure, expressed disappointment that the Baker administration has yet to comply with the law and is instead proposing alterations. Balser also expressed frustration that the state is reporting only the more limited information weekly, rather than daily, as the law requires.

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“It’s both less frequent and not as comprehensive as the statute requires,” she said. “The families and the larger public have a right to know what happens in these institutions.

“Most of the deaths in the state have been in these institutions. Their residents are the most vulnerable, and we need to make sure they’re getting the care they need.”


Todd Wallack can be reached at todd.wallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack. Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.