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Confirming our concerns, the Globe reports the administration is withholding COVID testing info

October 13, 2020 3 comments

The Boston Globe has recently been reporting that the Baker administration is withholding COVID-19 testing information from the public regarding nursing homes and other congregate care facilities.

Unfortunately, the Globe has repeatedly failed to mention that these “other congregate care facilities” include group homes and developmental centers in the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) system.

But a Globe editorial on Monday, (October 12) confirms our own reporting about the lack of public information from the Baker administration about COVID testing.

As the editorial stated:

…it’s worrisome that the Baker administration has provided only partial access to important COVID infection data in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, even after the governor signed a law to enhance data reporting.

We have been posting for months about this issue as it relates to the DDS system. Our latest post on October 7 discloses that the administration’s online Weekly State Facility reports do not contain any COVID testing data on what may be more than 25,000 staff working in provider-operated group homes.

Further, as we reported, there is no information listed in the weekly reports on the numbers of deaths of staff working in any type of DDS setting. Data provided by DDS in June showed that anywhere from 3 to 15 staff members in group homes had died of COVID-19 as of the end of that month.

In addition to the missing staff data in the weekly reports, the positive test numbers for residents of DDS facilities are not cumulative, and there are no exact numbers given when there are less than 5 deaths or positive cases in any category in a given week.

Globe finds similar lack of data

With regard to nursing homes, the Globe has found many of the same information problems that we have disclosed with regard to DDS. The Globe reported last month that the administration is providing ranges of numbers rather than exact numbers on nursing home residents testing positive; and the newspaper said there is no cumulative testing data in the administration’s reporting on certain assisted living facilities.

MassLive reported on October 1 that no data is published by the administration, as required by a new public reporting law, on whether people who tested positive for COVID-19 have a disability.

Administration strategy to withhold COVID information

Given our findings and the reporting by the Globe and MassLive, it appears withholding COVID-related information is a deliberate strategy by the administration.

In early August, we reported that internal emails in June among the Baker administration’s top human services administrators revealed an apparent consensus to reduce public reporting of COVID-19 test results in congregate care facilities.

That consensus appears to have led to decisions to stop publicly reporting cumulative COVID testing data, and not to report test data on DDS provider staff working in group homes. For reasons that are unclear to us, the administration publicly reports only the number of staff testing positive in state-run group homes.

In one email, a senior manager at MassHealth appears to have wanted to “sunset” congregate care reporting in general. That was apparently just as Governor Baker was signing legislation into law that would increase reporting requirements about COVID-19 infection rates in congregate care facilities.

Lack of compliance with Public Records Law

It’s not clear whether the Globe or any other state media outlet followed up on our reporting on those internal emails.

However, the Globe did file its own public records requests in June for internal emails on COVID testing; and, like us, they’ve gotten little information. The Monday editorial stated that the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) was not complying with orders from the Public Records Supervisor to release the records to the Globe.

We have also reported that the administration has not complied with orders by the Public Records Supervisor to provide us with records or responses to numerous public records requests regarding COVID testing in the DDS system.

Meanwhile, our repeated requests over the past six months to Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Lou Sudders for information about the administration’s response to the virus have all been ignored.

Globe calls for accountability, but the newspaper itself has a blind spot

In its editorial, the Globe gave Governor Baker credit for bringing the pandemic “more or less under control in the state.” But the newspaper maintained that, “we can’t afford any more blind spots. The public needs to keep a close eye on the trends — and hold the state accountable when required.”

We agree that the administration’s lack of adequate public reporting on the COVID crisis shows it is failing to hold itself accountable for its response to the crisis. We hope that changes.

Yet the Globe and the rest of the media in Massachusetts have their own blind spot in that they appear to be largely uninterested in issues facing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the state.

We hope that the administration finally ends its circle-the-wagons approach when it comes to providing information and relevant data about the COVID crisis.

At the same time, we hope both the administration and the media will stop treating people in the DDS system as an afterthought at best, particularly with regard to the pandemic.

No Data: DDS group home staff data largely absent from administration’s public COVID test reports

October 7, 2020 5 comments

Even though the Baker administration announced in August that they were requiring staff to be tested for COVID-19 in group homes for persons with developmental disabilities, it appears only a small portion of the results of those tests on staff are being made publicly available.

The administration’s Weekly State Facility Reports list numbers of state-operated group home and developmental center residents and staff who are currently COVID positive. But they do not contain any COVID testing data on what may be more than 25,000 staff working in the much larger network of provider-operated group homes.

Further, there is no information listed in the weekly reports on the numbers of deaths of staff working in any type of DDS setting. Data provided by DDS in June showed that anywhere from 3 to 15 staff members in group homes had died of COVID-19 as of the end of that month.

We created the chart below based on the administration’s online Weekly State Facility Reports from May 26 through the most recent report, dated September 29. (You can click on the chart to make it larger.)

The chart illustrates the data gaps, and points to some other problems with the way the administration reports the results of COVID testing in the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) system. In addition to the missing staff data, the positive test numbers are not cumulative, and there are no exact numbers given when there are less than 5 deaths or positive cases in any category in a given week.

We also have questions about the data on “residents recovered” from COVID. A note to the data states that the numbers “do not include all facility cases and recoveries over time.” As a result, it isn’t clear what portion of all recovered residents are included in the data.

As discussed below, the number listed in the weekly reports for residents having recovered from the virus in state-operated group homes — 146 — did not change from July 21 through September 29.

There is no similar data listed in the reports on recovered staff.

There are some 4,800 staff caring for some 1,400 residents in state-operated group homes and developmental centers run directly by DDS, according to the administration.

DDS has no figures on the total number of staff caring for the 7,800 residents in provider-run group homes around the state; but we are estimating that the number of such staff may be higher than 25,000.

EOHHS reports provide more limited data even for residents

The chart illustrates the gaps in staff data by including categories labeled “no data.”

Even with regard to residents, the Weekly State Facility Reports provide exact numbers only if more than 5 residents are positive or have died in a given week. As the chart shows, there are a number of entries that say <5, meaning the true numbers are anywhere from 1 to 4.

As a result, it can’t be determined in those instances exactly how many individuals were positive with COVID or died in a given week, in given settings.

For instance, it can’t be determined for the week of September 29 how many group home residents actually died of the virus. The data state only that the number was <5. It’s not clear why the numbers aren’t more exact. Among other problems, listing the data as a number range precludes adding numbers from different weeks together to obtain cumulative totals.

Data reporting changeover as of October 1

From April through September 30, DDS did provide us, upon written request, with total numbers of residents and staff testing positive in all group homes and developmental centers. DDS also provided exact numbers and provided cumulative testing data.

DDS has now referred us for testing numbers going forward to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), which posts the Weekly State Facility Reports.

Since June 16, the Weekly State Facility Report numbers are for the current week only. Prior to that date, the reports did offer cumulative testing numbers, which are listed in red font in the chart above.

The changeover in data reporting from DDS to EOHHS coincides with a new testing system under which DDS and other human services providers must arrange for their own COVID testing.

I emailed Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Lou Sudders on Monday to ask whether EOHHS can provide us with more complete data, similar to the data that DDS provided.  I also emailed Helen Rush-Lloyd, records access officer for the Department of Public Health (DPH). I was told DPH actually produces the Weekly State Facility Reports.

Neither Sudders or Rush-Lloyd has responded to my emails.

No longer listing cumulative data for positive tests

As noted, the Weekly State Facility Report data on positive test results are no longer cumulative. The reports list the number of group home and developmental center residents who are currently positive each week.

While previous weekly reports are available online, it isn’t clear if cumulative positive testing totals can be gleaned from them. As noted below, it also isn’t clear whether the numbers of recovered residents are actually cumulative.

The week of June 16 may have  been the last Weekly State Facility Report listing clearly cumulative data. As of June 16, the report listed a cumulative total of 1,428 state and provider-operated group home residents as having tested positive.

That number, however, does not line up with our data from DDS. DDS at that time reported a cumulative total of 1,575 group home residents as having tested positive.

COVID recovery numbers didn’t change for state-operated group home residents

As noted above, it isn’t clear what the numbers listed in the Weekly State Facility Reports for recovered residents actually means, or whether the numbers are cumulative. The reports list the category as “Current Clients Recovered.”

A note at the bottom of each report states that the numbers listed for recovered residents “do not include all facility cases and recoveries over time.”

Recovered patients are further defined as having tested negative or having met symptom and time-based recovery guidelines issued by the Massachusetts DPH and federal Centers for Disease Control.

As the chart above shows, the number of state-operated group home residents listed as recovered remained at 146 from July 21 through the end of September. Prior to July, a cumulative total of 156 residents of those facilities were listed as having contracted COVID-19.

From June 15 on, as many as 24 additional state-operated group home residents, or as few as 6, contracted the virus, according to the data. It isn’t clear whether the 146 listed each week as having recovered represents the same group of residents, and whether no additional residents recovered from the virus after July 21.

We have similar questions about the number of residents listed as recovered in provider-operated group homes. While 1,187 residents of those facilities were listed as recovered in the June 23 Weekly State Facility Report, that number rose by only 52 — to 1,239 — as of September 29.

It isn’t clear to us whether only 52 additional residents recovered from the virus in the provider-run group homes in the three-month period after June 23. It is also unclear what the cumulative total was of those residents testing positive was during that same period of time.

We hope that EOHHS improves its public reporting of COVID testing results in the DDS system by eliminating the gaps in the data, making all the numbers exact, and providing cumulative data in addition to current data.

In not providing clear and complete reporting on the COVID crisis in the system, and in failing to respond to questions about the reporting, the administration loses a bit more of its credibility every day in that respect.

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