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Big discrepancies found in Houston-area data in new federal tool designed to track COVID-19 in nursing homes

HOUSTON – The federal government has launched a new database to track COVID-19 in the nation’s nursing homes. But a Channel 2 Investigation has found gaps in some of the information on facilities in the Houston area.

Nursing homes account for nearly half of all COVID-related deaths in the U.S. But public tracking of which facilities had cases and deaths has been difficult, if not impossible, in some states since they haven’t been required to report them. In April, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) notified more than 15,000 nursing homes that they would be required to report that information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and as of the database’s release last week, all but 1,800 of them had responded in some way.

The national picture

According to CMS, there have been more than 95,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 32,000 deaths in nursing homes as of May 31. But when looking at the data for individual nursing homes, there are some discrepancies. CMS warns that due to how some facilities submitted their information, and since it’s a new program, users should consider those limitations when looking at the database.

Importance of tracking the virus in nursing homes

In Texas, roughly 40% of all COVID-related deaths have been in nursing homes. That’s why these facilities remain a focal point in the battle to stop the spread of the virus.

“This is really the biggest concern that we have,” said Dr. Umair Shah, Executive Director of Harris County Public Health. He says when dealing with a fragile population, there is no room for error when it comes to infection control.

“It has to be meticulous, it has to be a hundred percent and it has to be consistent and that’s the challenge,” he said.

Dr. Julia Reyser says another concern is staff potentially bringing the virus home, or vice versa.

“Workers have to go to work,” she says, “and they have to interact with their family members and they have to come back to work again,” she said.

There is also the challenge of residents having to leave for medical procedures, like kidney dialysis. Both state and federal officials say those are just some of the reasons why tracking COVID-19 hotspots in nursing homes is crucial.

Discrepancies in the data

Can the public trust the data in the new CMS database?

“Assume that this data is the best the government has right now,” said Charles Brown, an attorney who specializes in litigating nursing home cases. “Unfortunately, it’s incomplete and frequently inaccurate.”

In the Houston area, the CMS database shows 68 positive patients at Focused Care of Baytown as of Wednesday night. But the facility said they had no positive cases and showed KPRC 2 what they reported to the CDC. At this point, they’re not quite sure how it happened.

At The Buckingham on Woodway in Houston, the database showed 11 COVID-related deaths. But when we spoke with the executive director we were told that wasn’t true. The director said there had actually been six deaths related to coronavirus.

The database showed only one COVID-related death at the Oakmont in Humble, but county officials told us last week there have been at least a dozen.

Key takeaways

“This data is a starting point, it’s a starting point for the public,” said Brown. “If you believe the information is accurate, talk to them about it. If you believe the information is inaccurate, talk to them about it.”

Beyond the inaccuracies, don’t jump to conclusions when viewing the data. A high number of cases at a certain nursing home may simply indicate that the facility is taking only COVID-positive residents so they can receive specialized care while keeping other facilities COVID-free.

Also keep in mind that the current data is nearly two weeks old, ending the week of May 31 and a quarter of nursing homes in Texas have not reported their numbers yet. A CMS spokesperson says with the new reporting requirement, they expected that the precision of the data would need to be refined over time.

On June 7, any facilities that remained non-compliant with the reporting requirement were fined $1,000, and will incur an additional $500 penalty each week they are non-compliant.