Eleven. That’s how many more Oklahomans have died from COVID-19 in a nursing home or long-term care facility since the last count two weeks ago.
They are grandparents, great grandparents, mothers and fathers. They are overworked nurses, cooks and janitors who cared for Oklahoma’s elderly.
These numbers account for the pandemic’s fatal toll on the state’s most vulnerable residents.
Families fought back last week after the state health department pulled back these numbers from public view.
Early this month the agency decided to stop publishing a weekly report of every nursing home, assisted living facility, veteran center and long-term care facilities that had at least one COVID-19 infection among its residents or staff since the pandemic began. The list, which is part of the state’s epidemiology reports that come out on Wednesdays, includes the total number of staff and residents who have been infected with or died from COVID-19 since March 2020.
Interim Health Commissioner Keith Reed said the state is coming off of a recent surge prompted by the Delta variant and aligned with the start of the school year. and cases in long-term care facilities have slowed. It seemed like the right time to pull back some of the resources being dedicated to COVID-19 data presentation, Reed said.
But family members whose loved ones reside in nursing homes disagree.
The weekly report released on Nov. 10 was the first to exclude the information about the state’s most vulnerable residents and drew criticism from the public.
Reed, who was promoted from Deputy Health Commissioner after his predecessor resigned last month, said the pushback was swift and unexpected.
Feedback forced the agency to reconsider its decision.
“My mom passed away in a long-term care facility,” said Reed. “When you have a loved one in a facility like that, you want every tool available to ensure they’re safe and taken care of. So, if this helps people then we want to do that.”
The list was added back into this week’s report, which includes 11 new deaths and 10 new cases confirmed in the past two weeks.
COVID-19 toll in long-term care centers
Since March 2020, 14,900 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in 505 of the state’s long term care facilities. There are about 650 centers statewide.
Of the 1,820 people who have died from the virus in these facilities, 99% of them were residents.
Of the five facilities with the most deaths in the state, three were state-run veteran centers.
At least 113 residents and staff have died from COVID-19 at veteran centers in Claremore, Clinton and Norman. Claremore Veterans Center has the highest number of deaths, 53, and cases, 322, by far. South Pointe Rehabilitation Care Center and St. Ann’s Skilled Nursing and Therapy in Oklahoma City are also among the facilities with the highest death counts.
All of these facilities were inspected for COVID-19 protocols by the state health department. Violations were cited at the Claremore Veterans Center and South Pointe Rehabilitation Care Center.
Michael Russell became the administrator at the Norman Veterans Center in September where he moved after running the Veterans Center in Lawton. He said one of the reasons the numbers are higher in these facilities is because they have more beds than most other facilities.
The Claremore and Norman centers can house up to 300 residents, while Clinton can hold about 150. The family-run Beadles Nursing Home in Alva maxes out at 50 residents, which is more typical especially for rural facilities.
Oklahoma City resident Seth Kastner used the state’s data to check up on the facilities where his grandmothers lived during the pandemic.
Kastner would scan the list for Elison Independent Living of Statesman Club in Oklahoma City, where his maternal grandmother, Margaret Long, lived for the first nine months of the pandemic. Restrictions made it impossible for the family to check up on Long in-person so Kastner used the list to gauge his grandmother’s risk of catching the virus. In December they moved her to Touchmark at Coffee Creek, an assisted living center in Edmond, where they were allowed to visit her in person. Kastner relied less on the state’s list because his family was able to verify his grandmother’s condition, and the condition of the facility, in-person.
When Kastner’s paternal grandmother, Cordova Kastner, was admitted to Iris Memory Care of Edmond this summer, he turned again to the state’s list for information. About a week after she was admitted, COVID-19 entered the facility. Kastner’s grandmother was infected and died weeks later from strokes and other complications.
“This data is absolutely valuable,” Kastner said. “For me, I’m using it more for guidance than anything. But in this unique environment, it’s one of the few things that we have to look to.”
Ten people at the facility, including Cordova Kastner, contracted the virus. Three people died. Cordova Kastner was not counted among those deaths because COVID-19 was not deemed the direct cause of death, “though it certainly did not help,” Seth Kastner said.
Reed ‘looking for some kind of middle ground’
This isn’t the first time the state Health Department has stopped providing local COVID-19 data.
Oklahoma Watch requested COVID-19 case data in nursing homes and by ZIP code in the early weeks of the pandemic in March 2020. The state Health Department initially resisted, saying the information could jeopardize privacy. The agency finally relented by mid-April 2020, but then pulled the information in June of last year after Gov. Kevin Stitt’s emergency powers expired. It took an informal opinion by then-Attorney General Mike Hunter to restore the local data.
Earlier this year, before the summer surge related to the Delta variant, the health department changed its reporting of ZIP code and nursing home data to weekly. It remained on that schedule until last week.
Reed said recent changes to the agency’s public information dashboard caused health department officials to again rethink its strategy.
“There are a lot of resources that go into all this data collection and pulling it together in meaningful ways and putting it out,” Reed said. “We’re looking for some kind of middle ground that gives people the information they need and allows us to be efficient.”
The state also pulled back COVID-19 data by city and ZIP code, death counts and vaccine rates at the ZIP code level.
Following pushback from the public and journalists including staff at Oklahoma Watch, health officials are revisiting those decisions as well and are expected to announce an update plan later this week.
Long-term care data will be released to the public, but it is unclear at what frequency.
Oklahoma City resident Michelle Buell Schiermeyer said communication was lacking at the facility where her mother, Karen Trumble, lived this summer while she was receiving therapeutic services. The facility was short staffed, which meant it was difficult to get anyone on the phone for an update, Buell Schiermeyer said.
“This information needs to be available to families,” she said. “In a scary situation, it’s an added peace of mind.”