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Governor Baker and his staff continue to withhold key pandemic data

Gov. Charlie Baker looked on as Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders spoke during a press conference about the coronavirus pandemic on March 19.
Gov. Charlie Baker looked on as Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders spoke during a press conference about the coronavirus pandemic on March 19.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker’s administration continues to withhold key details about COVID-19 cases and deaths at many nursing homes and other senior-care facilities, despite Baker signing a law three months ago that requires greater disclosure about infections at the institutions.

The law specifically orders the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to issue a daily report with the number of cases and deaths for staff and residents at nursing homes, assisted living centers, and other health care and housing facilities catering to the elderly.

But DPH has continued to report cases in nursing homes and assisted living facilities in broad ranges, such as “1-10” or “>30.” It has also refused to release the exact number of deaths at nursing homes with fewer than five deaths, withheld the accumulated number of deaths at specific assisted living facilities, and declined to release data on cases and deaths at residential housing complexes serving the elderly altogether.

“I am very disappointed that the administration continues to not report accurately and precisely the data regarding COVID-19 cases and deaths in our elderly long-term care facilities,” said Representative Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat who sponsored the coronavirus data reporting bill.

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Balser said accurate reporting is needed both to help alert families to problems in facilities and to help researchers identify problems and prevent future deaths. In early July, Balser and most other members of the state’s Joint Committee on Elder Affairs sent Baker a letter complaining about the state’s lack of compliance with the new law. Balser co-chairs the committee.

A department spokeswoman, Katheleen Conti, said in a written statement that the department recently began reporting the number of cases and deaths for nursing homes and assisted living facilities in a new daily report since the law was passed, in addition to a weekly report it launched several months ago.

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“Massachusetts continues to provide some of the most comprehensive and highly-ranked COVID-19 data reports in the nation,” Conti wrote.

The new daily report does not contain cumulative totals since the pandemic began earlier this year, making it hard to determine how many deaths have occurred in individual assisted living facilities. But the agency said it plans to add that additional information “in the weeks ahead.”

DPH has also said it is trying to protect the identity of people killed by the virus by not disclosing the exact number of deaths at facilities with fewer than five deaths, even though death certificates with the names of everyone who died and the causes of death are publicly available from the state and local clerks.

This is not the first time the state has been accused of withholding information about the COVID crisis — potentially making it harder to identify and contain outbreaks.

For instance, DPH initially tried to block access to statistics on the number of cases by municipality, delaying the revelation that Chelsea and some other communities were hotspots.

And the Globe was forced to file suit in Suffolk Superior Court in order to get a list of deaths so far this year — including from COVID-19 — even though the Globe had successfully sued the state for similar data in the past. The department had argued the data wasn’t public until after it completed its own analysis of the year’s death data in a report to the Legislature, something that typically takes the department well over a year. A judge disagreed.

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Several public health researchers also said Massachusetts should provide the exact number of cases and deaths at each facility to make it easier to try to identify factors that may have contributed to the spread of the disease, and help contain future outbreaks.

David C. Grabowski, a Harvard Medical School professor who has been studying COVID outbreaks at nursing homes, pointed out that both the US Centers for Disease Control and many other states have reported the precise number of cases and deaths at individual facilities.

“I would prefer the state release exact numbers,” he said. “Nobody is asking these facilities to release names of residents and staff.”

Elizabeth Dugan, an associate professor of gerontology at University of Massachusetts Boston, said the lack of precision has made it harder for researchers trying to track the spread of the virus.

“If we had more sensitive measures, we would be able to do better research,” Dugan said.

Todd Wallack of the Globe staff can be reached at todd.wallack@globe.com.

The entire three-part Last Words series can be found at www.bostonglobe.com/lastwords.



Todd Wallack can be reached at todd.wallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.