Last Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that he was reversing his previous policy and belatedly releasing the names of nursing homes and assisted living facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks—which now account for nearly two-thirds of all coronavirus fatalities in the commonwealth.
Northam’s original rationale for withholding this vital information from the public was that under state law, these businesses were entitled to the same medical privacy protections as individual patients, despite numerous pleas by family members worried about the safety of their loved ones.
And with good reason. The Virginia Department of Health’s updated figures as of June 22 show that 1,005 (62 percent) of the total 1,620 COVID-19-related deaths reported in the commonwealth since the outbreak began have occurred in long-term senior care facilities. Surely state and local health officials must have noticed that these facilities were hotspots of contagion.
But as his sudden reversal last week made crystal clear, the governor at best mislead the public. If releasing the names of these facilities was not allowed under state law three months ago, releasing them now would still be forbidden since the General Assembly has not met in the interim to change the law, as House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R–Shenandoah, correctly pointed out.
Northam also bizarrely blamed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for supposedly releasing faulty information that created “confusion” to explain why for months, he would not let Virginians know which of these senior care facilities were reporting deadly coronavirus outbreaks. What exactly was Virginia’s physician/governor confused about?
“I cannot fathom the reasoning behind the governor’s announcement,” Gilbert said. “Families have sought this information—information they could use to protect their loved ones from a lethal threat—for months. Now, after the body count in nursing homes reaches 1,000, the governor has reversed course.”
The most deadly outbreak in the Rappahannock Health District so far was at Carriage Hill Health and Rehab Center in Spotsylvania: a total of 10 people have died and 93 elderly residents and staff members have confirmed coronavirus cases. Another massive outbreak at Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Henrico County resulted in 51 deaths in just two months.
A recent Wall Street Journal analysis found that there have been more than 50,000 COVID-19 fatalities in nursing homes and assisted living facilities nationwide—accounting for 43 percent of the 116,700 deaths tracked in the country, even though this demographic accounts for less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.
During a conference call with the nation’s governors in early May, Vice President Mike Pence strongly recommended that every nursing home resident and staff member be tested.
Yet it took more than a month after that call for Northam to finally announce last Friday that Virginia would spend $246 million (and mind you, most of this is federal money) to test every long-term care facility resident and staff member in Virginia—by July 15!
That means that more than three months after he declared a statewide emergency, testing of every resident and staff member at these known coronavirus hotspots has still not occurred. Without testing, there’s no way to tell who is infected and possibly contagious, and who needs to be isolated or removed to a safer location.
The appalling death toll at these facilities is a direct result of the inexcusable foot-dragging and inaction by Northam and state health officials, who were apparently too busy monitoring the beaches and parks to make sure that the most vulnerable people in Virginia were protected from this lethal threat.
Sorry, governor, this latest after-the-fact announcement is too little—and way too late.