COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Nursing homes care for some of the most vulnerable people in the Midlands community.
The homes are responsible for keeping them safe from fatal illnesses, but COVID-19 statistics and annual inspections show weaknesses in the system go back years.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control keeps a running list of nursing homes with confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths. Click or tap here to see that list.
As of this publication, the latest DHEC statistics are from June 15.
As of that date, 101 nursing homes (of 194 statewide) have reported COVID-19 cases in their residents or staff.
The data reflects 264 nursing home deaths -- 262 among residents and 2 staff members -- comprised 43.9% of all COVID-19 deaths in South Carolina as of June 15.
WIS cross-referenced the DHEC data with nursing home inspection reports collected and made available by the federal agency Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
WIS found 60 of the 101 nursing homes with confirmed COVID-19 cases failed to “provide and implement an infection prevention and control program” or “have a program that investigates, controls and keeps infection from spreading” in annual inspections conducted since December 2016.
Each case is different, but the nursing homes’ violations included using dirty gloves and contaminating laundry.
The inspections are conducted by DHEC on an unannounced basis.
Charleston attorney Nathan Hughey said he’s worked both sides of nursing home litigation, and the inspection reports reflect better-than-average days for the homes.
“The nursing homes generally know when that’s going to come, and so they have sort of a survey period where it’s almost like... if you’re about to have people over, you go clean your house up and make it look real nice, but if someone were to show up unannounced on a Wednesday afternoon, it might be in a state of disarray,” he said.
Hughey works with Columbia attorney Bert Louthian, who said the COVID-19 pandemic has made infection control failures more serious.
"What used to be considered minor problems like hand-washing, coming to work with a cough or a fever, not disinfecting equipment, now obviously as we all know, these minor violations have become major problems that need to be dealt with," he said.
Neither DHEC nor the South Carolina Health Care Association (which claims to represent 90 percent of long-term care facilities in the state) responded to WIS’s request for comment.
The agency also provides various resources on its website for nursing home staff and residents.
WIS spoke to a family member of a current resident and a worker at separate nursing homes. Both were able to provide documentation connecting them to a nursing home in the community.
WIS agreed to keep their identities and the nursing homes in question private over concerns of retaliation.
The family member said she is concerned for her loved one, and the staffing situation at the home in question has gotten worse.
“Some of the staff, I think, have quit because once that virus gets in there, which it already has, that it’s going to spread rapidly and that they get it,” they said.
The worker said there's a lack of communication at the facility.
“They keep admitting new people and they’re not taking the time to see if they have the virus or not before they get there, and we have no idea until after,” they said. “Yeah... it’s just scary.”
CMS announced in June it would be increasing financial fines for nursing homes that repeatedly fail infection control inspections.