25 Investigates: MA’s new COVID dashboard sheds little light on nursing homes

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s new online daily dashboard for reporting COVID-19 data was designed to make information easier for people to understand. But 25 Investigates found, when it comes to the data on the scope of the virus and any outbreaks within individual nursing homes, there’s a web of reports and spreadsheets.

Government watchdogs say people who need information about a facility for a loved one, shouldn’t have to go on a hunt to find it.

“We got to put this in one place and make it easy for people to see and not have to go on a hunt, to acquire information that you need,” said Barbara Anthony a senior fellow in healthcare at Pioneer Institute. “These spreadsheets are just God awful.”

On Jan. 4, health officials debuted a new interactive, daily dashboard. It’s a snapshot of the state of COVID-19 for each day. It makes a lot of information easy to read, in one place like the number of new cases, testing rates, hospitalizations, and details on who’s getting sick.

But when it comes to information on COVID-19 in Massachusetts long term care facilities, that’s where it gets complicated.

Some of that data exists, but not on the interactive dashboard. There are at least three separate reports where consumers can mine some details. There’s the Chapter 93 Elder Facilities Daily Report, a spreadsheet for deaths reported that day at each home, an aggregative report relays total deaths and cases from March through mid-December of 2020. The state’s weekly report has information on total deaths and a range of cases at each facility without any timeframe.

“So here we have transparency, that is its own worst enemy, because it’s not really providing useful information,” Anthony said. “What is this COVID status of that long-term care facility, this new, nice looking interactive dashboard doesn’t do one thing to answer that question, not one single thing. I want to know, the history of this home with respect to COVID actual cases and deaths. And I want to know what’s happening now.”

Despite the ongoing vaccine rollout, Anthony says there’s still a pressing need right now for people to access this information as homes are still struggling to contain coronavirus outbreaks.

Take, for example, Sunny Acres Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Chelmsford.

25 Investigates obtained a series of inspection reports after the home saw a deadly outbreak in October.

On Oct. 13, inspectors noted workers were improperly using PPE and not properly washing their hands. During a follow-up visit a week later, inspectors noted the staff cared for COVID-19 positive and negative patients and they were combining COVID-positive and negative patients in one unit.

“That is shocking,” said Anthony, who also examined the reports.

After a third inspection, the state declared Sunny Acres posed an immediate jeopardy to residents and could no longer accept new ones for the time being. Back in October, a spokesperson for Sunny Acres, Jeff Schwartz, told us “We have corrected all issues on the date of the citation, and requested that the Jeopardy citation be removed as of 10/30/20.” Sunny Acres did not respond to our recent questions about the findings in the inspection, and what’s been done to address them.

However, the Department of Public Health told us the home received two jeopardy designations, one from the feds and another from the state. Both were ultimately lifted by Dec. 2, following a deficiency-free infection control survey by the state.

But, Anthony says this example is exactly why clear consumer information is so crucial.

“If the state’s not putting it out in an easy to access, understandable way, then consumers have really no recourse,” she said.

25 Investigates reached out to Massachusetts officials for comments on the dashboard criticism. Massachusetts leaders have defended their COVID reports for months saying that they share more data than most other states.

In a written statement, a spokesperson said “The Commonwealth has continued to provide comprehensive data to the public through daily and weekly reporting, including long-term care cases, deaths, and facility performance on infection control surveys and surveillance testing.”

But Pioneer Institute argues data is only useful if it’s helpful to consumers.

“Are you putting out useful data that is helpful to consumers, and hospital discharge planners who are looking for facilities to place people where they don’t have to worry about high risk COVID situations.”

Anthony says her team at the institute plans to present a new format to DPH that they hope will be more consumer-friendly.

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