Nursing homes can now share information about COVID-19 cases, health commissioner says

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver spoke at a press conference in March on Capitol Square. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver announced Wednesday that nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state can now share information on COVID-19 outbreaks, including “case identification and contact investigation efforts.”

The information is still considered “confidential” and won’t be released to the general public, according to a news release from the Virginia Department of Health. But the decision reverses the department’s previous policy of not disclosing information on outbreaks even to other facilities requesting the information .

Earlier this month, LeadingAge Virginia, an association of nonprofit senior living centers, asked VDH for a daily list of facilities with outbreaks to minimize the risk of transmission by staff members working at more than one location. At the time, the agency responded that its “long-standing policy is not to release the name of facilities unless there is a public health reason to do so or the facility has given permission.”

Oliver did previously allow nursing homes in Northern Virginia to distribute lists of longterm care centers with COVID-19 outbreaks to other facilities, saying that the information was necessary due to the number of outbreaks within nursing homes in the region. But before Wednesday’s decision, facilities in other areas of the state could not share the same information.

In reversing the policy, the department acknowledged that “many essential health care employees work at multiple facilities, serving Virginia’s most vulnerable during this pandemic.” 

“Out of concern for their safety and the safety of patients, the state health commissioner is releasing this information to aid VDH’s state and local efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” the news release reads.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia health officials have taken a conservative approach to releasing information about the virus. Oliver has told reporters that he’s limited in what he can share publicly due to a section of state code that requires him to maintain the anonymity of “each patient and practitioner” unless it serves a public health purpose.

Officials have interpreted another section of the code to classify individual facilities and companies as “patients,” which they say prevents them from publicly disclosing outbreaks.

“A person is defined pretty broadly in the law, which includes facilities,” said Laurie Forlano, VDH’s deputy commissioner of population health, at a recent press briefing. “And in most cases, releasing the name of a facility in these situations doesn’t change the action we take as a public health agency.”

On Tuesday, the department began releasing more granular information on COVID-19 across the commonwealth, including a list of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths by locality. Other states, such as Maryland, have expanded data to include a the number of cases by zip code, or — like Ohio — released the names of infected nursing homes on public surveillance dashboards.

There have also been efforts at the federal level to increase information on outbreaks at nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Earlier this week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced new regulatory requirements, requiring facilities to inform residents and their families of outbreaks and report cases of the virus to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.