11 investigates: Slow progress in missing COVID data from nursing homes in state database

PITTSBURGH — It’s been more than a month since 11 Investigates started pushing for answers about large amounts of missing data on COVID-19 cases and deaths at Pennsylvania nursing homes.

After our initial exposé, the state made changes to try and get nursing homes to report more accurate and timely data.

The latest numbers show there has been some improvement, but progress is slow.

The Department of Health declined to do a follow-up interview with 11 Investigates, but said in an email, “nursing home reporting and engagement has improved by 3%.”

Slow Progress

Families and nursing home advocates say 3% is not enough.

“Do they really want you, me, and everybody else to be happy with 3% ... really?,” said Lynn Campbell, whose twin sister Laura died of COVID at a nursing home in December.

Campbell is critical of the Pennsylvania Health Department for not doing more to make the information public.

“It’s almost like it’s so lackadaisical, they don’t care,” she said. if you don’t care about your data, then you don’t care about the people who make up that data, including my sister.”

Laura’s death was among thousands not included in the state’s database until 11 Investigates started asking questions.

The Numbers

11 Investigates uncovered that the state’s public data on nursing home cases and deaths has been full of missing information during the entire pandemic. The problem peaked in January 2021, when nearly 450 facilities out of the state’s 692 showed “no data” in in the weekly numbers posted by the state.

Five days after our first report in May, the state issued an order changing the reporting requirements for nursing homes from daily to weekly for their COVID numbers, telling us at the time they hoped that would increase compliance.

When the state implemented the new rule, 191 nursing homes showed up as reporting “no data.” After one month, that number went down slightly to 188 facilities. In the latest numbers posted this week, the number is now down to 176.

Frustration over Lack of Accountability

11 Investigates asked the state Department of Health why they would not talk with us on camera about the lingering issues with nursing home data reporting. In an email, a DOH spokesperson told us, “Our officials schedules are unable to accommodate an interview as they are laser focused on public health response.”

Campbell was frustrated by the state’s response, and wants to see someone held accountable for allowing this problem to continue for so long.

“Laser-focused on public health response; and the outcome is 3%, if you’re laser-focused?” she said, angrily. “Wow. Somebody’s not doing their job.”

Several nursing homes in the state still showing up on the “no data” list are also frustrated.

Nursing Home Confusion

As we reported in our investigation, several nursing homes shown as reporting “no data” told us they were reporting their numbers and didn’t know there was a problem until we contacted them.

Quality Life Services, which has 10 facilities in the state, had four facilities on the “no data” list in May. One of their administrators showed us the process he goes through to report his data, and even showed us the confirmation he receives when he submits his questionnaire through an online platform required by the state.

“I think it’s concerning if it’s showing no data and we know data has been submitted,” QLS co-owner Mary Susan Tack-Yurek told us at the time. “it’s frustrating, but I also think it’s unfair to consumers and to providers that are relying on this data to be accurate.”

The Pennsylvania Healthcare Association (PHCA), an advocacy group for nursing homes, believes changing the reporting requirement from daily to weekly was a step in the right direction, but it clearly hasn’t fixed the problem. In June, more than 80 of its members were still on the “no data” list.

“We haven’t seen a major shift in the number of facilities who are now once again reporting their data, so something is still happening,” said PHCA President Zach Shamberg.

The state has told 11 Investigates it works with nursing homes who are not reporting their numbers or are reporting them incorrectly.

“We continue to work with them to ensure their questions are resolved and they have the resources they need to report timely and accurately,” DOH spokesperson Maggi Barton told us in an email.

But Shamberg says many of their members showing “no data” were not contacted by the state. PHCA is now stepping in to try and help.

“I want to see the state bring providers to the table to talk about an issue like this and how we can fix it moving forward,” Shamberg said. “We need to get this right. Because at the end of the day, we don’t. It’s a disservice to our residents and to their family members, they have the right to know the correct numbers.”

Family’s Mission

As for Lynn Campbell, she says she will keep pushing for transparency in the nursing home COVID numbers in her sister’s memory — especially now with the more contagious and deadly Delta variant of COVID spreading across the nation.

“I want things to change. I don’t want my sister’s death to be for nothing,” she said. “They have to have transparency. They owe it to the public. They owe it to the citizens.”