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Federal Website Has Flawed Data On Coronavirus Cases In Nursing Homes

Pictured above is Victoria Post Acute Care in El Cajon, June 16, 2020.

Photo by Roland Lizarondo

Above: Pictured above is Victoria Post Acute Care in El Cajon, June 16, 2020.

After months of stories detailing the devastation wrought by COVID-19 in nursing homes nationwide, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services unveiled a new website in late May that the agency billed as an invaluable resource for tracking outbreaks of the disease among these vulnerable populations.

“This national data for nursing homes is unprecedented and constitutes the backbone of a national COVID-19 virus surveillance system,” said CMS administrator Seema Verma soon after the website went live.

But it quickly became apparent that the federal data on cases and deaths was flawed. For example, there are big gaps between CMS figures and those tabulated in California nursing homes by the state Department of Public Health.

Consider that the state data show 16 COVID-19 deaths among residents at Victoria Post Acute in El Cajon, but the CMS website says the virus has claimed 43 resident lives in the facility.

“The data reflected for Victoria Post Acute Care in the CMS reports is incorrect,” wrote Victoria Executive Director Colton Levar in an email to KPBS. “I am not sure of the source of the error, but I am sure that certain of the numbers included are not accurate in that they far exceed our actual COVID-19 related experience. We have reported the discrepancy to the NHSN Help Desk, and are hoping it will be corrected in short order.”

A CMS spokesman acknowledged “some discrepancies” in the numbers.

“The vast majority of it is accurate,” wrote CMS Public Information Officer Jack Cheevers in an email to KPBS. “Nursing homes are still getting used to the reporting requirements, and some may not yet be reporting accurately. One issue we have seen is nursing facilities reporting cumulative cases instead of only new cases on a daily basis, which inflates their case numbers.”

But KPBS also found facilities where the state website showed far more cases and deaths than the federal website. Two examples include Avocado Post Acute in El Cajon and Villa Rancho Bernardo Care Center.

RELATED:San Diego Nursing Homes With Most Coronavirus Cases Have Long Complaint Records

According to California data, Avocado has had 100 coronavirus cases to date and 13 deaths among residents. The federal website reports that Avocado, as of the last week of May, has had a total of 23 residents with COVID-19 and two have died from the virus.

At Villa Rancho Bernardo, the federal website lists the facility as having zero total coronavirus cases and deaths as of May 31st. The state data shows the facility as having 47 cases and fewer than 11 deaths.

Cheevers said one difference between the California and CMS data is that the state updates its COVID information daily, while CMS does it weekly.

“So on most days, there will be discrepancies,” Cheevers said.

Senior care homes have been the epicenter of the pandemic. More than 50,000 deaths nationwide have been linked to the facilities.

In addition to monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks at senior care communities, the state and federal websites are considered vital for family members who may want to move a loved one out of a facility or into one based on its reported case counts.

“If we've got data that's off, then we're not going to be able to mitigate these problems,” said Tony Chicotel, staff lawyer with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. “Some people get hurt when the data is wrong. And I think the message to consumers is that the regulators don't really have control of this. They're not on the ball.”

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Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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