When COVID-19 came to Washington, it hit nursing homes first. It ripped through the Life Care Center in Kirkland like an inferno, killing, between February and April, 40 people and sickening well over 100.
From the first days the novel and deadly respiratory infection started spreading in the Puget Sound region, it became clear that nursing homes and other “congregate care” settings were particularly vulnerable.
So far, we don’t know if COVID-19 has come to one of Lewis County’s nursing homes. We’ve heard rumors on social media and we’ve pored over the statistics, but we don’t know for sure, because Lewis County won’t confirm it.
On Tuesday, 12 new cases of COVID-19 were reported, all in commissioner district 1 — the greater Centralia area. Six of the 12 were 80 or older, three were in their 70s and three were in their 50s.
In the past two months or so, since daily case counts started trending upward, cases have typically been spread evenly across age ranges and commissioner districts, with many new cases reported among younger adults. We were concerned to see the data so skewed to so many older residents of Centralia in one day.
When asked if this data reflected an outbreak at a congregate care facility, Lewis County Public Health Director J.P. Anderson said the county could not comment.
“We’re not commenting on outbreaks in congregate settings,” he said when reached Thursday, noting that exceptions included publicly-owned institutions such as the Lewis County Jail, which has had an outbreak, or in a situation where there was a risk to the public.
How is a COVID-19 outbreak at a nursing home not a public health risk?
In both outbreaks we’ve reported on, at the Lewis County Jail and at American Behavioral Health Systems’ Chehalis location, we’ve learned about them from tips from the public — in both cases frightened family members looking for information and accountability.
While Anderson says the county will comment on outbreaks at a public congregate facility, we didn’t find out about the jail outbreak until an inmate’s family member called us. The county confirmed it when we asked, but it had already been nearly a week since the tests came back positive.
Thurston County confirms outbreaks at congregate care facilities, and though it does not name the business, defines the type of facility, such as a long-term care facility, or an adult family home. Thurston County also releases cases occurring by zip code and the gender of the person diagnosed.
We understand the county has legal reasons to be careful with how much information it releases. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA, prohibits the release of a patient’s medical information without their consent. The Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office has argued that releasing any more data than the county already does could, potentially, reveal a patient’s identity, and violate HIPPA, leaving the county open to costly lawsuits.
It’s all about liability.
When we had 50 cases, that was a plausible argument. At nearly 500, that’s a stretch.
We appreciate the work Lewis County Public Health and Social Services is doing during an incredibly difficult time. We know this is a new and stressful situation for everyone, in which everyone is under pressure to make the right decisions in the short and long term.
But we aren’t asking for names, specific businesses, addresses or even neighborhoods. We don’t want anyone to get sued. We’re asking the county to confirm when outbreaks occur, particularly in places where our most vulnerable residents live. It’s a matter of public interest, and public health.