The Erie County Legislature on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution demanding the county Department of Health be more transparent about COVID-19 outbreaks at local nursing homes.
Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, who introduced the resolution with his fellow Republicans, said the Legislature wants the health department to disclose to the public anytime more than 5% of a nursing home’s residents test positive.
“It's information that we believe is important to the public,” he told WBFO after the resolution passed, 11-0. “It's information that we believe is important for transparency in government, and for people who are curious and desperate to know what's going on with their loved ones in nursing homes.”
The Buffalo News reported Oct. 29 that the health department was not publicly announcing COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes — something that four other county health departments in Western New York have done.
Specifically, the health department never revealed last month’s cluster at the Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Nursing Center at Williamsville. The outbreak infected nearly 70 residents and caused a visit from a federal COVID-19 strike team.
Health department officials have said they only announce COVID-19 outbreaks if they threaten the general public, and have cited, HIPAA, the federal health privacy law.
And at his briefing Wednesday, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz added that the county doesn’t always even know about nursing home outbreaks, since nursing homes report directly to the New York State Department of Health.
“If the state provides it to us, they provide it to us. If they don't, we don't have it,” he said. “Because no one's required to give it to us. And if we asked [nursing homes] for them, they don't have to do that.”
However, it appears the county health department will begin to announce nursing home outbreaks. Legislator Lisa Chimera, a Democrat who wrote her own letter about the issue to the health department last week, said county Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein told her that the health department will find a way to collect nursing home data from the state and disclose it to the public.
“One of the difficulties the county really has had is nursing homes directly report to the state … but as we go through this pandemic, we're realizing the importance of communicating clearly the outbreaks, and we're having to assist in testing and contact tracing, and that the data set of nursing home outbreaks is an important part of fighting this pandemic,” Chimera said.
There are other ways to find data on COVID-19 in nursing homes. Data on cases and deaths in all nursing homes across the country is posted and updated weekly on the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid website.
This isn’t the first time the Legislature has butted heads with the county administration over nursing homes. Following reporting by WBFO last year, legislators demanded the county begin enforcing its own nursing home abuse reporting mandate from 2017, called Ruthie’s Law. The county still hasn’t fined nursing homes for not following Ruthie’s Law, thanks to a lawsuit by local nursing homes.
But Lorigo said the administration does have to answer to the Legislature.
“Fortunately, on occasion, this body can work together to direct the administration to do things for the betterment of Erie County,” he said. “And hopefully, this is one of those cases where the county executive will actually listen and do what we've directed.”