Minnesotans deserve to know if the nursing homes, assisted-living centers and other care settings that house their loved ones have residents or staff test positive for COVID-19. On Thursday, the state health department commendably corrected course to ensure that families have this critical information as the epidemic continues to unfold.
The decision came after a Star Tribune story spotlighted the lack of disclosure. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm announced that the data will be made public for facilities with 10 or more residents and will be posted on the Department of Health’s website this week.
Until now, Minnesota had let individual care providers decide whether to disclose this information. Some, such as Roseville-based Presbyterian Homes & Services, have issued swift notifications. But it’s unclear how many others have voluntarily done so.
Families should not be dependent on providers, said state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point. “I would want to know,” she said.
Housley’s late parents lived in a long-term care center. If they were still alive, she said she would have worried constantly as the disease spread. Eleven of the 18 people who have died of COVID-19 in Minnesota were residents of long-term care facilities. Statewide, 47 such centers have at least one confirmed case.One care center has eight cases.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, knowing if a care facility is affected provides peace of mind, Housley said. Informed families can call to ensure care centers are taking appropriate infection-control measures, for example. That’s especially reassuring when restrictions prevent visits.
While few would likely move residents to another facility because of how difficult it is to find long-term care, some families might wish to take other precautions, Housley said. Some may want seniors without complex medical needs to temporarily stay with them until COVID-19 subsides.
Housley was drafting a bill to require disclosure when MDH reversed course. She said she’ll still continue to work to ensure that state officials have flexibility to provide critical public health information should it ever be needed in the future.
Housley applauded Malcolm’s swift action and said she agrees with exempting care centers that house fewer than 10 residents because of privacy issues. “I’m extremely grateful that she got right on this,’’ Housley said, referring to Malcolm.
The state’s long-term care trade group, LeadingAge Minnesota, said it hadn’t been blocking disclosure. “We support transparency,” said a spokeswoman for LeadingAge Minnesota, a trade organization whose 1,100 members provide care to 70,000 older adults around the state.
To be fair to MDH officials, the decision was not as easy as it might appear at first glance. There is a solemn commitment within public health to protect patient privacy, especially during disease investigations. The roots of this involve the stigma that too frequently has accompanied AIDS and other conditions. Tracking illness’s spread requires the public to trust and cooperate with Health Department staff.
That said, there’s a substantial difference between disclosing the name of a facility and identifying individual patients or staff. Providing a full list of affected facilities enhances rather than compromises public health.