There are new questions over the accuracy of the coronavirus count at long term care and nursing home facilities.
Health officials call the facilities ground zero for COVID-19 infections.
Atlanta-based reporter Sophia Choi started investigating local nursing home deaths that might not be counted toward the overall number of deaths due to coronavirus, even though patients have been said to have been exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
Russell Harp died at Roselane Health and Rehabilitation Center in Marietta, Georgia, after his roommate died from similar symptoms.
Currently, the state website that tracks coronavirus cases shows Roselane has 23 residents testing positive for the virus -- more than 20% of the residents. The facility has also had four deaths.
Harp’s family believes the case numbers are artificially low because people like their grandfather aren't even being tested.
Their story also brings up the issue of whether coroners need to be present when someone dies at a nursing home.
Harp died under a complicated situation a week ago. His family said it all started after his roommate died from coronavirus-like symptoms.
"They told us even though they couldn't disclose the cause of death, that our grandfather was going to be moved to isolation and that a COVID-19 test had been administered," Harp's granddaughter, Victoria Harp, told WSB-TV.
Despite nurses tending in full personal protective equipment (PPE) gear, the 86-year-old grandfather got worse, so the family kept asking about the test results.
“We were very nervous and kept inquiring," Victoria Harp said.
At least six times, they got the same answer.
“We were again assured that a test had been administered and were awaiting the results," Victoria Harp said.
With that assurance, they had no problem with the funeral home embalming Russell Harp's body, when he died.
“It was a shock to us yesterday afternoon, when someone called from the Roselane Rehabilitation Center introduced himself as an administrator and said -- offered no apology, but that no test was provided to our grandfather," Victoria Harp said.
The family said they were told a test labeled for their grandfather was sent to the nursing home, but Roselane’s head nurse took it and used it on someone else.
Now, it's too late to test his body.
County Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Gulledge sent WSB-TV a statement, saying:
“Performing COVID testing in an embalmed body, in our medical opinion, would be futile. At that point, the body would no longer be considered infectious as the embalming process is toxic to living organisms.”
The family told Choi that Roselane decided to use Russell Harp's prior medical history to come up with a cause of death, instead.
“Meaning it would not be attributed to COVID-19, it would be attributed to maybe something they could find in his past. That’s kind of like, ‘Well we can’t really figure out what kind of cancer you have so we’re going to say you died of a cold,’” Victoria Harp said.
Like with a lot of deaths at long term care facilities, a medical professional on site handled Russell Harp's death and no coroner was called.
That practice brings up a yearslong fight for Georgia’s long-term care ombudsman, Melanie McNeil.
“If you die in a nursing home, a coroner should still be called. They’re not investigators, they’re not death investigators, they’re health care providers,” McNeil said. “Probably most of the times, the cause of death is whatever the facility says it is. But we know, there are times when that’s not the case."
Russell Harp's granddaughter now wonders how many others did not get a COVID-19 test before possibly dying from it.
“I think the reason why people need to know this is happening is because nursing homes don’t want infectious diseases to be listed as taking place in their facilities, or contagious viruses. That affects their funding, it affects how they look on ratings,” Victoria Harp said. “They are having fatalities at this center, that they are treating them as COVID-19 patients, and then not reporting it."
“The coroner wasn’t called. This would have been a situation, I would think, that it might be important to call the coroner, especially when we’re trying to keep a track of who has COVID and who’s died from it,” McNeil said.
Roselane's owner, Annaliese Impink, sent WSB-TV a statement, saying, in part:
“We understand and greatly appreciate the community’s concern, and are doing everything in our power to keep our residents safe and protected. We will continue to be transparent with information released to the authorities, family members and the wider public, while maintaining the dignity and privacy of each of our residents, and following HIPAA regulations.”
Prior to last week, facilities like Roselane voluntarily shared information about COVID-19 cases and deaths.
But a new federal mandate now requires them to report cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and residents' families.
“I don’t want them to shut their doors. That is not what I want, and I don’t want people to get fired. But I do want policies to be put in place, procedures to be put in place. I don’t want this to happen to other families," Victoria Harp said.
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