Georgia Army National Guard infection control member Pfc. Cierra Williams helps collect swabs from Legacy Transitional Care & Rehabilitation residents in April to test for the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Nursing homes now must report suspected COVID-19 cases and deaths

COVID-19 may have extracted a heavier toll on nursing home patients and workers than Georgia has recognized, according to data released Thursday by the federal government.

At Legacy Transitional Care & Rehabilitation in Atlanta, 33 residents and five employees have died of COVID-19 so far this year, by the federal count. The state shows only 11 deaths from the coronavirus at the facility as of Wednesday. At Westbury Medical Care and Rehab in Jackson, 42 residents and one worker’s death were tied to the coronavirus, according to the federal report. State reports showed 34 deaths at Westbury.

The higher counts may be because the federal government is requiring nursing homes to report both suspected and confirmed coronavirus infections and deaths, while Georgia’s daily reports on cases in long-term care facilities include only those confirmed by lab tests. Plus, the federal government requires nursing homes to report deaths of patients even if the person died at a hospital. It’s unclear if all nursing homes are including hospital deaths in their reports to Georgia regulators.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

Westbury’s administrator said that because nursing homes had difficulty obtaining testing when the pandemic began, some of its residents died with symptoms of the disease but the infection was not confirmed with a lab test. Westbury included those residents in its counts for the federal data

“We would rather err on the safe side and over-report,” said Jennifer Vasil, the home’s administrator.

Legacy Transitional Care declined to comment on the differences in its state and federal figures and its employee deaths.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began requiring the reports in an attempt to provide more transparency on the devastation the pandemic has caused.

The new federal database reported 16 nursing home workers from eight different facilities had died from the coronavirus, the first public tally of front-line worker deaths for Georgia. But those figures may overstate the impact.

PruittHealth said the report showing three worker deaths at one of its facilities was not accurate, and that no PruittHealth employees have died from the coronavirus. PruittHealth said it would make sure the information is corrected.

Georgia Army National Guard infection control members Sgt. Daniel Belman (right) and Pfc Cierra Williams (left) with the 265th Chemical Battalion assist Piedmont doctor Stephen Smith in collecting swabs from residents at Legacy Transitional Care to test for COVID-19 in April. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In other ways, the new reporting has muddied the picture of the where and how hard the pandemic has hit.

The report shows that 67 of Georgia’s 358 nursing homes overseen by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services failed to report the information on COVID-19 cases as required, which the government said will trigger warning letters and fines unless the information is quickly provided.

Tony Marshall, president and CEO of the Georgia Health Care Association, which represents long-term care providers across the state, said some nursing homes encountered technical problems when trying to register for the new data system, but he said they were working to meet the requirements.

“They certainly don’t want to be fined and risk their own operating licenses for failure to comply,” Marshall said.

» RELATED: More than 1,000 Georgia senior care residents died with COVID-19

» MORE: Gov. Kemp: Pandemic highlights need for senior care reforms to pass

Adding to the complexity, the federal data for some nursing homes includes only cases from a week in May, as the government required, while other homes reported all cases since the pandemic began. And both the federal and state tallies are a snapshot in time.

Those differences may explain why the federal data counted fewer coronavirus deaths overall than the tally by the Georgia Department of Community Health. The federal data captured 505 coronavirus deaths among Georgia nursing home residents, compared with the total of 877 reported to DCH by the state’s nursing homes as of Wednesday.

The federal database does not include other types of long-term care facilities, such as assisted living communities and personal care homes. Georgia includes those, showing that overall more than 1,000 residents of nursing homes, assisted living communities and large personal care homes have died after testing positive for COVID-19, according to the most recent figures.

Nursing homes across the country must continue to make weekly coronavirus reports, and the information will be posted on the Nursing Home Compare website.

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