The new coronavirus has hit thousands of nursing homes throughout the United States, leading health experts to call on the federal government to release data on exactly how many Covid-19-related deaths have occurred in the facilities.
The rise in Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes
CDC doesn't track nursing home deaths related to Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The latest CDC data on nursing homes, released in March, indicated more than 400 long-term care facilities in the United States had been hit by the new coronavirus. According to CDC, the data was gathered through "informal outreach" from the agency to states.
However, the Associated Press, NBC News, and the Wall Street Journal each have conducted independent research on the spread of Covid-19 throughout nursing homes in the United States. While each news outlet is reporting different figures, experts say they indicate Covid-19 is hitting U.S. nursing homes hard.
For instance, AP relied on data from media reports and state health departments to estimate 3,621 deaths have occurred from Covid-19 in nursing homes in the United States.
Meanwhile, data obtained by the Journal from 37 state health departments showed that more than 2,100 nursing homes have been hit by the new coronavirus, with at least 15,473 cases of Covid-19 and more than 2,300 deaths.
Data obtained by NBC News from state agencies showed that almost 2,500 long-term care facilities in 36 states have been hit by the new coronavirus, and based on data from 24 responding states, NBC News found 2,246 Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes.
The true number of nursing home deaths from Covid-19 is likely higher than any current estimates, experts say, as most states don't count nursing home residents who died without being tested for Covid-19 as a death related to Covid-19.
Experts call on federal government to release nursing home data
Health experts have been calling on the federal government to release data on Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes in the United States. David Grabowski, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said, "It's impossible to fight and contain this virus if we don't know where it's located." He added that gathering more data could allow officials to "see where [the virus] could be headed next."
Toby Edelman, senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy, said, "It's critical to have accurate information about which nursing homes have residents with confirmed cases of Covid-19, and which facilities need more staff and personal protective equipment, so that states can target additional resources where the need is greatest."
However, according to Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services, some states don't have the technology or resources to gather the data. "This is not information consistently entered into the Michigan Disease Surveillance System reporting system by local health departments, and we don't currently have the infrastructure within that system to collect the information and report it out," she said.
The American Health Care Association (AHCA), which represents nursing homes, said more data on Covid-19 cases in nursing homes wouldn't affect how the facilities are responding to the epidemic.
"We are suggesting that providers act as if Covid is already in their building, even if there are not confirmed cases," AHCA said. "While more data is helpful, knowing the number of infections will not change the way our providers are reacting to prevent and contain the spread of the virus."
Last week, CMS released recommendations saying nursing homes should have separate staffing teams for residents, and that the facilities should have separate areas to house patients who test positive for Covid-19.
Deborah Birx, who leads the White House's coronavirus response task force, last week said that once more tests for the new coronavirus are available, nursing homes should be prioritized to receive them.
"We need to really ensure that nursing homes have sentinel surveillance," Birx said. "And what do I mean by that? That we're actively testing in nursing homes, both the residents and the workers, at all times" (Condon/Herschaft, Associated Press, 4/13; Mathews/Kamp, Wall Street Journal, 4/10; Khimm et al., NBC News, 4/10).