Nearly 300 Illinois nursing home patients and staff have died from COVID-19, but exactly where still remains largely cloaked in secrecy.
Unlike some states, Illinois hasn’t named specific facilities where the virus has been detected. That’s been true even in cases of significant clusters of deaths.
While state officials signal that could be changing, for now patients, staff and family members often must rely on homes themselves to disclose cases, such as a Joliet home on Wednesday announcing 23 total deaths.
The lack of comprehensive information has led one advocacy group, AARP Illinois, to ask the state to begin posting cases and death counts online for each nursing home.
“In order for public policy people and health care experts to know what’s going on, why would we not have that information accessible, available and public?” said AARP State Director Bob Gallo.
The push for transparency comes in a state that, before the pandemic, struggled more than most for their nursing homes to follow rules to limit the spread of infection, and now is fighting a virus that has been particularly deadly to the oldest and most frail residents
With family visits curtailed, health officials say the virus can still be spread by nursing home staff, many of whom work in multiple homes. The fear is compounded by complaints by one workers’ union — SEIU Healthcare — that its members struggle to get enough protective gear that could keep not only them safe, but prevent the virus from spreading among patients as short-staffed workers hustle between rooms.
“You’ll get sweaty. And the mask gets messed up,” worker James Carter said at an SEIU Healthcare news conference this week. “And you’ll be in need of another one (mask), but you can’t.”
Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called nursing homes an “accelerator” of the spread of the virus. Last month, the CDC estimated that 400 such facilities had reported cases of the virus. But a count by The Associated Press this week found that more than 3,600 nursing home residents have died nationwide.
As of Thursday, in Illinois, the Pritzker administration reported 587 patients and nursing home staffers who tested positive, at a total of 305 nursing homes. At least 125 facilities have had at least one patient or staffer die.
To put that in perspective, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid — which largely funds nursing homes — lists 732 homes in Illinois. In other words, a sizable portion of Illinois homes — approaching half — have had confirmed cases.
Federal regulators were so concerned about the potential spread of the virus in nursing homes that, in the pandemic’s early days, they directed states to focus their inspections of facilities on infection control. The Illinois Department of Public Health, which oversees homes in Illinois, said it’s put in place an “aggressive campaign” to try to test workers to keep them from bringing the virus into homes.
“We think that if we can identify staff members — maybe they don’t know they’re positive — then we can get ahead of them potentially infecting the people they’re charged to work with,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the department’s director.
But that campaign has not, to date, included issuing alerts of homes where staff or patients have tested positive.
SEIU Healthcare Illinois members complain there remains a lack of communication from employers. They’ve been getting information on cases piecemeal, including through rumors, said Shaba Andrich, the union’s vice president for nursing homes.
Nursing homes are required to tell the state of positive cases, but not the public, other patients’ families or staff. A nursing home trade group — Illinois Council on Long Term Care — said it hasn’t taken a position on whether facilities should be publicly named. For now, what to publicize is up to its individual members.
“Each nursing home has to decide what’s best for their residents and staff,” said the group’s executive director, Pat Comstock.
And some operators have publicized cases, such as Little Sisters of the Poor, which operates a Lincoln Park facility where four residents have died.
Sister Constance Veit, the group’s communications director, said as of Thursday six other residents had fallen sick with COVID-19 and four of their workers had tested positive for the virus. Veit said the facility decided to be “open and transparent” about it with donors and the families of residents.
“We felt it was the right thing,” she said.
That’s led to unusual situations, such as in DuPage County. County officials break out details on a Willowbrook home, the Chateau Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, which acknowledged its cases, but not of other homes. As of Thursday, besides the 10 deaths at the Willowbrook home, there were 31 additional deaths amid 188 additional cases at 25 other homes in the county. The 41 combined deaths — at the Willowbrook and other nursing homes — make up more than half of the 70 fatalities in the county.
In Cook County, the medical examiner’s office publishes enough information to identify if a death happened at a nursing facility. The Tribune identified 52 nursing homes in Cook County with at least one coronavirus-related death in Chicago and suburban Cook. The deaths outside the city were concentrated in facilities in the south suburbs. The way the county data is organized makes it more difficult to identify nursing home staff who have died from the virus.
But across much of metro Chicago, details have been hard to get.
In McHenry County, officials reported 44 nursing home residents and 22 staff members have the virus, and six deaths with coronavirus as a contributing factor, at five nursing homes. But facilities aren’t named.
Nor are they named in Kane County. In Lake County, officials give broad updates on homes with at least two cases — at last count 24 homes with 321 confirmed cases.
The county will name the cities or villages that host the facilities, but not the facilities themselves. That’s despite the county previously releasing the names of nursing homes in the case of other disease outbreaks, including a February one involving Legionnaires’ disease at a Brookdale senior living facility in Vernon Hills.
COVID-19 is different, said Lake County Sheriff’s Sgt. Christopher Covelli, who has been working on the county’s joint communications response to the coronavirus. He said the Legionnaires’ outbreak involved one facility death and a large-scale investigation into that specific facility.
He said the department is following the guidance of the Illinois Department of Public Health, which is to not release names of individual facilities, “due to the widespread positive COVID-19 tests.”
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The state department, however, had offered a different reason earlier Thursday to the Tribune for not publicizing the names of homes tied to the pandemic. A spokeswoman pointed to a specific regulation regarding communicable diseases. But that regulation only prohibits releasing information that “would identify” a specific person, not a facility.
When asked Thursday afternoon about not releasing facilities’ names, Ezike — the department’s director — said the agency was “working on getting information out regarding the nursing homes, I think there might be some delays in keeping up with that. But we’re working on that.”
A department spokesman later told the Tribune the agency was “working on compiling a listing of the locations,” which it hoped to provide “as soon as possible.”
Gallo, with AARP Illinois, said he hopes the state soon begins to publish details on facilities with known COVID-19 cases.
“We can tell restaurants that they can’t accept reservations,” he said. “This is certainly a health care facility that’s regulated as well. There should be assurances that they’re being held to the standards that the law requires.”
Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed, along with Emily K. Coleman of the News-Sun and Sarah Freishtat of the Beacon-News.