Shameful secrecy on virus outbreak

Published 6:28 pm Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Western Tidewater Health District has some explaining to do in the wake of news that eight people at Consulate Health Care in Windsor died as a result of COVID-19 in April and May but neither public health officials nor the facility’s management bothered to inform a jittery citizenry.

Relentless reporting by The Times’ Stephen Faleski is the only reason the community knows that the outbreak at Consulate occurred (first reported by Faleski in late April) and the severity of it (reported on last week’s front page). If you missed it, 63 residents of Consulate, a 114-bed facility on Courthouse Highway, have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, accounting for 90% of all cases in the Windsor ZIP code and 42% of cases countywide.

More disturbing are the eight deaths at the facility — the only COVID-related deaths in Isle of Wight County to date. Those went completely unreported by the facility, the Western Tidewater Health District and the Virginia Department of Health until Faleski discovered the numbers when searching a U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid database and started asking questions. Only then did Dr. Todd Wagner, WTHD director, confirm the deaths and a Consulate corporate spokeswoman issue a statement about grieving with “families that have lost loved ones as a result of this virus.” The lack of transparency is, in a word, shameful.

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Our newspaper first began digging into the story when Isle of Wight’s COVID-19 numbers spiked overnight in late April and public health officials would not explain why. Local elected officials were told not to talk about it. From the beginning, state and regional health officials in Virginia have put the profits and reputations of nursing homes above public health during a global pandemic. When states all around the country were being fully transparent about nursing homes as a major hotspot for coronavirus outbreaks, Virginia doubled down in citing an obscure state law that state officials claim gives corporations the same right of “privacy” as patients.

You won’t read this statement often in this space, but thank God for the federal government. Deeply disturbed by the lack of transparency by nursing home owners and some states, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid began mandating that long-term care facilities report their COVID numbers for dissemination to the public beginning in late May.

In that database, The Times found the shocking numbers from Consulate. More troublesome is that Florida-based Consulate now claims that the Windsor facility has been COVID-free since May 11, meaning that the 63 cases and eight deaths were occurring when Faleski was first seeking answers about the spike in countywide numbers. Instead of coming clean with the community about the source of the surge, public health officials let citizens travel on a false belief that the virus suddenly was running rampant throughout Isle of Wight, rather than within the walls of a single nursing home.

The Western Tidewater Health District and Consulate Health Care owe the community an apology and, more important, transparency going forward. That said, now is not the time to stop wearing masks and social distancing. The Smithfield area saw five new COVID-19 cases this past weekend.

Not a medical doctor

As a few letter writers noted in last week’s edition, a signature on a letter to the editor a couple of weeks ago was misleading. Smithfield resident Robert Singleterry, a critic of Gov. Ralph Northam’s order requiring people to wear masks in public places, made a scientific case against facial masks as a way to reduce spread of COVID-19.

Singleterry indeed has a doctorate, but not of the medical variety. Given the topic of his letter, we should have noted so in publishing it. We apologize for the lapse in judgment.