Can you trust the numbers? 11 Investigates missing information on Pa. nursing home deaths

HARRISBURG, Pa. — 11 Investigates discovered the state’s public data on nursing home cases and deaths is riddled with missing information, making it difficult to pinpoint which homes had significant outbreaks and where many deaths occurred during the pandemic.

All nursing homes are supposed to report their COVID case count and deaths to the state, every day; but over the past year, a surprising number show up as reporting “no data” at all. In a year when lack of transparency has been such an issue with these facilities, some are questioning whether we can trust the numbers.

“I don’t trust it at all,” said Lynn Campbell, whose twin sister Laura was a resident of UPMC’s Seneca Place in Verona and died of COVID-19 in December. “The public has a right to know everything about COVID— everything — especially if they want to put a family member in a home.”

Nursing Home COVID Deaths

By the state’s official count, more than 13,200 nursing home residents have died of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania since the pandemic began.

Lynn Campbell’s twin sister Laura was one of them.

“It took six days. Six days for her to die. From the day they told us she had it, to the day she passed - six days, my twin sister was gone,” Lynn said, as she remembered that difficult time.

At just 56 years old, Laura died in December, in her sister’s arms.

“I put it right by her, and crawled around her, and held her - until the last heartbeat beat,” she told us, fighting back tears.

Missing Information

Pennsylvania has one of the highest death rates for COVID-19 in nursing homes nationwide, coming in at No. 5, with more deaths than states with even larger populations like New York, Florida and California.

As of Friday, the latest tally on the state Department of Health’s website was 13,245 COVID-related nursing home deaths since the pandemic began. But finding out exactly where many of those deaths occurred is a challenge, because of so much missing data.

Every week, the state posts a link to a spreadsheet showing a cumulative count of the number of resident cases and deaths at each long-term care facility in the state, but 11 Investigates discovered many homes show “no data” in those reports. We reviewed spreadsheets posted since the state started publicly reporting the data in May 2020.

Month after month, since the beginning, data has been missing from dozens of nursing homes. That number peaked in January of this year, with more than 400 showing no data. That’s more than half the state’s nearly 700 nursing homes, with about 80 right here in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

That included several Kane nursing homes run by Allegheny County, and UPMC-owned Seneca Place, where Laura lived.

“How can they do that? How can that be allowed?” Lynn said incredulously, as 11 Investigates share the publicly reported state numbers with her. “The public has a right to know everything about COVID - everything, and especially if they want to put a family member in a home.”

11 Investigates added up the total number of COVID deaths in nursing homes reported on the state’s latest spreadsheet, released May 18th. The number came to just under 7,000, compared to more than 13,000 in the state’s official tally of deaths. Because data is missing, we don’t know where those thousands of additional deaths occurred and how the state reconciles those numbers.

Call for more transparency

11 Investigates also shared our findings with State Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-40th District, of the South Hills. She has been critical of the state for its handling of the nursing home crisis during the pandemic, but even she was surprised to see so much missing data.

“There’s facilities on there that you’re looking back almost a year, and they’ve never reported any data. How’s that even possible?” Mihalek said.

Mihalek rigorously questioned State Health Secretary Alison Beam in February about a state Department of Health decision early in the pandemic to order nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients from hospitals. This led to an investigation of nursing home deaths in Pennsylvania.

Now, Mihalek says she wants to see more accountability for the missing data.

“How would you feel if you had a family member in any of these facilities and you have no clue what’s going on in there?” Mihalek said.

11 Investigates has been asking the state Department of Health for an interview since last week to address the issue of missing data, but they have yet to make someone available.

In several emailed statements, however, the state has repeatedly blamed nursing homes for the problem, saying it was caused because “they reported either no data, or inaccurate or incomplete data.” In another email, a DOH spokesperson said they have worked with facilities on “the importance of data reporting.”

Ongoing problem

11 investigates Angie Moreschi first asked then-Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine about this issue in August, after noticing missing data more than nine months ago. We wanted to know back then why more wasn’t being done about it, because some families had expressed concern that facilities were trying to keep COVID outbreaks secret.

“I can understand certainly the families’ concerns,” Levine said.

Levine also blamed nursing homes for not complying with the state order to report their numbers, and said the state was working with facilities to get them to comply.

“In the end, I mean we can regulate nursing homes; if we have to be more punitive we will, but that’s not our goal,” she said.

11 Investigates contacts nursing homes

11 investigates called 22 local nursing homes shown as reporting no data on the state’s publicly reported spreadsheet from May 13.

Several insisted they do report their data, and didn’t realize there was a problem, including Quality Life Services, which has had several of its 10 facilities show up as reporting “no data.”

“We put our numbers in every day,” said Paul McGuire, Quality Life’s Chief Operating Officer. “It’s very frustrating for us to get this call. Unfortunately, we don’t know what’s going on. There’s not very good communication between the Department of Health and our industry.”

Quality Life Reports current COVID numbers on its website, but does not appear to show a cumulative case count since the pandemic began.

“We are very, very transparent,” said Mary Susan Tack-Yurek, Quality Life’s Quality Assurance Officer. “It’s frustrating, but I think it’s also unfair to consumers and to providers that are relying on this data to be accurate.”

Another home, Mt. Lebanon Rehab and Wellness Center, owned by the same company as Brighton Rehab which had one of the worst COVID outbreaks in the state, told us:

“We briefly had some issues inputting the data, but after talking with the state, that has been resolved and we are reporting as normal,” said acting administrator Joe Duplinsky. However, a check of the data just released on May 18 shows Mt. Lebanon Rehab still shows “no data.”

A spokesperson for Seneca Place, where Lynn’s twin sister lived, released this statement:

“UPMC senior communities have consistently been notifying all appropriate regulatory agencies, our residents, their family members and our dedicated staff of each new confirmed COVID-19 case since the beginning of the pandemic. Data discrepancies have occurred between reporting systems as facilities across the state work to report numbers to multiple organizations that capture and collectively report nursing home statistics. As a result, the state dashboard may display “NO DATA” for some facilities, but we are working internally and with the Department of Health to address these discrepancies. Regardless, our facilities are still in compliance with reporting guidelines.”

A Seneca Place spokesperson did freely share its cumulative data with 11 Investigates, saying, “During the entire pandemic at UPMC Seneca Place we’ve had a total number of 78 resident cases, 35 resident deaths and 50 staff cases.”

Lost Trust

It’s not clear why the state has not done more to correct the problem of missing data after all this time.

However, since 11 Investigates started pressing the state a week ago, a spokesperson emailed us an updated statement just yesterday saying it may implement changes soon.

“The department is considering some changes as early as next week to help improve compliance with reporting requirements. We will continue working with all nursing home facilities in an effort to provide the public with a comprehensive view of the impact of COVID-19 in nursing homes each week,” DOH spokesperson Maggi Barton said in the emailed statement.

Still, the Department of Health has yet to agree to an interview to answer questions about the issue of missing data.

Lynn Campbell says she is frustrated by the lack of transparency, and questions the state’s numbers.

“I want things to change. I don’t want to see my sister’s death be for nothing.”