OPINION: The importance of shedding light on COVID-19 cases

We have heard from several family members of residents living at the Prestige Care & Rehabilitation in Camas since reporting the long-term care facility was one of 137 Washington nursing homes with a confirmed case of COVID-19. 

Some have voiced complaints about the facility. Others — the majority, in fact — have praised the care center and said Prestige employees have been nothing but wonderful to their loved ones. 

One woman, whose mother has lived at the Prestige facility for four years, said the center “practices contagion control every day” and takes extra precautions during flu season to protect residents. 

“This is by far the best facility my mother has been in (over) the last seven years,” the woman wrote to the Post-Record. “She was in four (homes) in three years before this, and three were horrible. So I know a good facility when I see one. I am sad that on top of all the extra hard work they have to deal with this negative experience.” 

The “negative experience” was not a reference to the confirmed case and the stress it must have caused to other staff members, residents and families, but rather to the Post-Record’s reporting. 

We understand the impulse to “shoot the messenger,” especially when reporting sheds light on uncomfortable facts. And we have nothing but empathy for people who must be worried sick about their elderly relatives living in a nursing home during this pandemic. We’re still haunted by the stories and images from the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, where family members desperately tried to communicate with their loved ones through windows while the center’s coronavirus death count just kept climbing — at one point accounting for 60 percent of all U.S. coronavirus deaths.

We also have no doubt there are excellent administrators, health care workers and other staff members at the Camas Prestige facility. We’ve seen it with our own eyes, having come into the center for feature stories on several occasions. This fact alone is the most compelling reason to shed light on what’s happening inside our local nursing homes during this pandemic.

As we know from national reporting, there are now more than 5,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 inside America’s nursing homes and it’s not just residents who are vulnerable — health care workers, too, are at great risk of infection, illness and even death. Reporting on confirmed cases and the possible spread of the virus — as well as on the measures administrators are taking to help disinfect facilities and provide personal protective equipment (PPE) — can help protect workers and those who come in contact with those workers on a daily basis. 

In fact, the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA) has demanded more transparency on COVID-19. In a petition sent to Governor Jay Inslee, the union says its members have “very real fears of getting sick, potentially infecting others and of the critical need for their protection.” The union has asked the governor for immediate help in getting more PPE; more COVID-19 testing; a statewide standard giving paid administrative leave for frontline responders on quarantine; and more protection for more vulnerable workers.

When the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released data on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases inside America’s nursing homes on March 23, there were a total of 147 facilities in 27 states with at least one confirmed coronavirus case. 

Less than three weeks later, new data showed 2,500 long-term care facilities in the United States, now in 36 states, were struggling with coronavirus cases. As of today, there are at least 5,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases inside America’s nursing homes. The rapid increase is startling. Even worse? Those figures likely underestimate the number of coronavirus cases circulating inside our nation’s nursing homes, since many states have inadequate reporting, don’t track or report employees who have tested positive or simply refuse to track or report any nursing home-related coronavirus cases. 

On April 11, Oregonian reporter Fedor Zarkhin wrote that the coronavirus has killed 24 people living in Oregon nursing homes — accounting for nearly half of the state’s confirmed COVID-19 deaths. (Note: an updated version of that story now shows 32 deaths in Oregon nursing homes.)

“The full scale of illness and death in Oregon senior care homes remains unclear because the state excluded nearly two dozen facilities with at least one case from the list,” Zarkhin noted. “The majority of deaths appear to be among elderly residents. It’s unclear if any are employees because the state withheld that information.”

Reporting on past violations also helps shed light on risk factors that may lead to more severe outbreaks and more concentrated COVID-19 clusters. In Pennsylvania, for instance, a nursing home where all 750 residents and staff members are now presumed to be infected with the coronavirus — and where at least five residents have already perished from the disease — state regulators warned that violations at the long-term care facility could lead to the spread of infection and diseases. Knowing how a nursing home has performed during past health and safety inspections can alert current staff members, residents and families of possible problems in the present and future, which is especially crucial when we’re talking about a global pandemic involving a virus that involves much higher risk for the elderly and health care workers. 

We are facing a highly contagious, deadly virus that has no cure and no vaccine. And we know the only way we will ever be able to safely reopen our society without these things is by knowing who has the coronavirus, who has already developed potentially protective antibodies and who is still vulnerable.

This is why it is critical that journalists continue to report on known coronavirus cases, deaths and on any confirmed case that has the potential to develop into a cluster.

Journalists cannot, however, do this without the support of our community. Newspapers have been severely impacted by the economic shutdown. We not only need financial support in the form of local advertising and subscriptions, we also need tips from community members who are directly impacted by this pandemic. Are you an essential worker? Someone who has recovered from or is still infected with COVID-19? Are you a high school senior in Camas or Washougal trying to figure out how to still celebrate your graduation accomplishments? A local teacher navigating online educational platforms? A health care worker at a local clinic, hospital or nursing home? A business owner who is navigating a whole new world amidst the shutdowns?

We want to hear from all of you. Please keep in mind, however, that we are currently working with a reduced staff and may not be able to respond to emails and phone calls right away. Anyone who has a Camas or Clark/Skamania County story idea should email managing editor Kelly Moyer at kelly.moyer@camaspostrecord.com. For Washougal-related story ideas, please email reporter Doug Flanagan for Washougal stories at doug.flanagan@camaspostrecord.com. 

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