By Annie Sciacca, Bay Area News Group, February 19 2021
OAKLAND — In response to a judge’s order, Alameda County has released records showing that at least 436 people in the county’s long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19, and at least 625 have been hospitalized.
Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo last month ordered that information to be released to this news organization after the county refused its request for the data under the California Public Records Act. Records turned over by the county this week are even more comprehensive than what the state has published so far.
The records show exactly how many people have been infected with COVID-19 and how many died at all long-term care facilities. Data from the state and other counties, on the other hand, don’t show specific numbers of deaths or infections at an institution unless at least 11 people there were affected.
According to Alameda County’s records, at least 6,870 people in the county’s facilities have contracted the disease — 3,843 residents and 3,027 staff members.
Among the hardest hit facilities were Crown Bay Nursing and Rehabilitation Facility in Alameda, where 118 people were infected and 21 died, according to the county’s data. Hayward’s Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Center had 76 infections and 19 deaths. Hayward Convalescent reported 18 deaths. Bay View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center reported 15 deaths and 180 total cases — the highest number of cases among all the facilities listed.
Long-term care facilities, which include skilled nursing homes and non-medical assisted living facilities, have been ravaged by COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
As the state struggled to build up efficient testing programs to screen for the virus in the homes, asymptomatic staff — who are often paid low wages that force them to work multiple nursing home jobs — unintentionally spread the virus across the facilities.
Some of the nursing homes that saw high infection rates, such as Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Center, have a track record of poor care and have been under investigation by prosecutors for potential wrongdoing. Hayward’s Parkview Healthcare Center, where 14 people have died of COVID-19, was sued by patients and families who accused it of neglect.
The winter surge of COVID-19 cases across California communities also reflected a spike in nursing homes.
More than 152,000 residents and staff of California long-term care facilities have been infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, and at least 12,670 have died. Although long-term care homes represented only 4% of the state’s COVID-19 cases, they accounted for more than a quarter of all the deaths.
Many families of nursing home residents and patient advocates who have spoken with this news organization since the start of the pandemic have accused nursing homes of withholding important information about COVID-19 outbreaks.
Many public agencies have often declined to release details about outbreaks, citing privacy laws, and just a few counties publish information about infections in workplaces. In contrast, Oregon regularly posts that information online.
The Bay Area News Group, which publishes The Mercury News and the East Bay Times, last April asked Alameda County’s public health department for data about confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths among residents and staff at long-term care facilities, nursing homes, residential care facilities and other congregate living facilities in the county. The request did not seek the names of those who contracted the virus or died from it.
The county rejected the request, even though it had already provided data for some nursing facilities, arguing that it’s a “covered entity” under the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which was enacted to protect patients’ medical records from being disclosed by health care providers without their consent. The county insisted that numbers of cases or deaths could be used to identify COVID-19 victims but did not explain how.
In ordering the county to release those records, Judge Grillo ruled HIPAA cannot be used to withhold information that isn’t exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act. He was the first California judge to rule that the state’s public records law, in essence, supersedes HIPAA.
Grillo said the county also failed to show how the data could be used to identify patients.
While the state has started providing data about cases across California nursing homes and assisted living facilities since the lawsuit was filed, the data released this week by the county is more detailed in some ways, since it shows facilities that have a small number of cases, which the state data obscures.