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Early Impact Of COVID-19 On Nursing Homes Vastly Underreported

The federal requirement that nursing homes report COVID-19 cases and deaths did not kick in until May 24, 2020 — three months after the first known nursing home outbreak at Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington.

Facilities could voluntarily provide such data to the CDC National Healthcare Safety Network, but just how many did so remains unclear. But factors ranging from data availability to reputation concerns may have motivated many, like Life Care Center of Kirkland, not to do so.

A new study in the journal JAMA Network Open attempts to fill in that blank.

By comparing federal tallies to nursing home data in 20 states that required reporting from the pandemic's onset, the authors found a shortfall of 44% of cases and 40% of deaths.

Extrapolating to include all U.S. states, that translates to more than 68,000 cases and 16,000 deaths going unreported.

Understanding those gaps and where they occurred is essential for tracking the pandemic's early impact. For example, unreported cases and deaths accounted for a larger portion of year-end totals in the Northeast than in regions where coronavirus impacts were felt more strongly later, such as the South and West.

Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.