How Nursing Homes Cover Up Deadly Infection Outbreaks

Posted on behalf of Jeff Pitman on December 22, 2016 in Nursing Home Abuse
Updated on April 25, 2024

sick patientA recent investigation by Reuters found that vague rules give healthcare providers too much leeway in reporting outbreaks of deadly infections, often allowing for information about these outbreaks to be kept from the public.

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In one instance uncovered in the investigation, the staff of a nursing home in Roswell, N.M., downplayed a deadly outbreak of Clostridium difficile, a highly contagious and potentially fatal infection linked to long-term use of antibiotics.

The first signs of the outbreak at the Casa Maria Health Care Center were discovered in Jan. 2014 when a patient was diagnosed with the infection. A month later, seven of the nursing home facility’s 86 patients were infected with C. difficile.

New Mexico health code regulation states that any signs indicating an outbreak of C. difficile in a healthcare facility must be reported within 24 hours.

However, New Mexico Health Department officials were not told that C. difficile was present in Casa Maria until staff members inquired about how to handle the infection on March 4, 2014. By then, nine residents were infected.

The nursing home attempted to cover up the outbreak by telling Health Department officials that only a few patients had displayed symptoms and repeatedly denying that the infection had spread to a larger portion of the facility’s population.

The outbreak ended in June, lasting for five months. When it was over, eight of the fifteen patients infected with C. difficile had died.

The public was not informed that an outbreak had occurred until the release of Reuters’ investigation in 2016.

Vague Rules Protect Healthcare Providers, Harm Patients

Through its examination of cases across the country, Reuters found dangerous flaws in the ways outbreaks of superbug infections, like C. difficile, are reported and controlled.

The study found that laws in one-third of U.S. states bar the disclosure of the location of an outbreak or, in many cases, if an outbreak even occurred. Many health officials claim that disclosing that type of information, or even punishing facilities, could discourage healthcare providers from reporting outbreaks.

Although the Health Department must be notified if an outbreak occurs within a healthcare facility, it is left up to the staff to interpret what constitutes as an outbreak.

Investigators concluded that Casa Maria’s staff handled the outbreak properly and alerted authorities in an appropriate manner, despite the 24-hour rule for reporting C. difficile outbreaks. The department did not fault the nursing home for the incident and also did not issue a fine or punish the facility in any way for the delayed reporting, despite having the authority to do so.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lacks the regulatory authority to track deaths from superbugs. However, through the analysis of deaths certificates, investigators found that between 2003 and 2014, superbug-related deaths in nursing homes increased 62 percent from 1,400 to 2,300 deaths.

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