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DIGGING DEEPER: Families critical of nursing home, health depts. for handling of COVID-19 info

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - Several local families tell ABC21 the handling of matters at a Fort Wayne nursing home point to problems with ISDH and Allen County Health Department policies that hand home operators the control over certain information regarding COVID-19.

Nationwide statistics show long-term care and assisted living facilities are among the most likely places for a novel coronavirus outbreak to occur.

The elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions are more prone to the virus and are more likely to die if they contract it.

But transparency when it comes to nursing homes -- where, when, and how many infections -- is inconsistent across the United States...

And perhaps even more so in Indiana.

The Indiana State Department of Health has decided not to name homes where COIVD-19 has been detected. County health departments have the discretion to set their own policies in that regard.

So while Noble County in northeast Indiana has provided that information, neighboring Allen County has not.

There, it’s up to long-term care facilities to share certain information related to outbreaks with family members of residents, and to provide updates on conditions and severity thereafter.

They can decide to further publicize information and to answer questions from the media -- or not.

Indiana's Health Commissioner, Dr. Kris Box, has defended the state's practice limiting what it will say, even as neighboring states have provided far greater transparency regarding nursing homes.

"That is something that we can consider, but we've really tried to avoid that," Box said during Governor Eric Holcomb's a recent COVID-19 briefing, "because we do think this is a personal thing between the facility and the individuals who live in the facility, and their families."

The Allen County Department of Health echoes that position.

"We do leave it up to those facilities to release that information if they feel necessary," health officials said during an April 15th virtual meeting, "and we know some have, and some have not to and that's up to them to do so."

But in recent weeks, the ABC21 newsroom has received several calls and numerous tips about one place they say it isn’t happening: Bethlehem Woods.

Using a public records request, the Digging Deeper team acquired a death certificate that shows at least one man who lived at the facility died from complications of COVID-19.

Jenee Lauer's Story

"I don't understand how this could be happening to someone like him," Jenee Lauer says.

Her father-in-law was taken to the hospital from Bethlehem Woods on Easter Sunday.

He was already ill, and staff at a local hospital tested him for COVID-19.

The following Wednesday, they received his results; Dave Lauer tested positive.

The Vietnam veteran was recovering at Bethlehem Woods.

He was only supposed to stay there a short time.

But as he was about ready to leave, the coronavirus pandemic prompted nursing homes across the state to lock down.

That's when Jenee knew her and her children wouldn't see "Papa" for some time.

"It's heartbreaking to see my kids walking around with fishing poles inside my house, wanting to know when Papa is coming home," Jenee describes, "so they can go fishing with Papa."

She alleges a history of bad communication or no communication from Bethlehem Woods during the outbreak.

"I asked her to please give me a call back," Jenee says, worried for Dave's health before his hospitalization, "and again, I never received a call back."

After some persistence, Jenee says she finally did get a call back from the nursing home on April 9, but the news wasn't good.

"I had received a call from the office manager that they did indeed have a confirmed case of the coronavirus at the nursing home," she tells us. "My heart dropped when I got that call. I was like, 'That's it, I'm certain he's going to get sick and this is exactly what I wanted to avoid.'"

After his infection was confirmed, Jenee called the nursing home, only to find out that they had put out Dave's things under an awning, barely protected as an April winter event passed.

"I don't have words to express how upset I am that I was left in the dark," Jenee says, "I want to know why it happened, how those details were left out, and how they could just discard the elderly they've been taking care of, and set their things out there like that."

Inside Bethlehem Woods

Jenee Lauer wasn't the only family member who spoke with ABC21.

In fact, there were several.

"Anna" spoke with us over the phone, asking we only use her first name for fear of retaliation against her loved one inside Bethlehem Woods.

"They don't care about the families and they don't care about the residents because they're not communicating with us," she says.

Anna says her family too got the phone call on April 9th, telling them that someone in the home tested positive for COVID-19.

By then, her loved one had moved rooms several times.

"You already can't have eyes on what's going on inside the nursing homes," Anna explains, "because there's no visitaion allowed. And now you have a nursing home that's allowed to choose or not choose how they want to disclose that information to those and the public."

She claims she wasn't told that her own family member had the virus, until they specifically asked staff a week later.

"Communication is everything," Anna says. "And if you have no communication, how can you help anybody?"

Choosing Transparency

Across the state, there are 1,568 COVID-19 cases in the state's nursing homes, according to the State Department of Health.

Of those cases, 993 involve residents, and the other 575 are staff members.

In the last week, long-term care facilities have been required to inform family members of COVID-19 cases immediately, but they aren't required to make that information public.

And according to Andy Eby, co-owner of Bickford Senior Living, that's not good enough.

Eby runs a Kansas-based nursing home company with a location in Wabash.

On their website, you'll find a constant update on the number of COVID-19 cases by location.

It's an unusual move in the industry, but one Eby believes all nursing homes should make.

"This is about us as individual human beings, taking personal responsibility for our role that we play in helping the world heal from this," Eby tells ABC21 anchor Brien McElhatten. "We have a responsibility to show up differently and provide a higher degree of transparency to the public."

Other states in the midwest, like Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Kentucky keep maps or lists on outbreaks at long-term care facilities.

"We believe this kind of hide-and-hope strategy of health care is not the right strategy right now," Eby says. "We are encouraging other health care institutions, other senior living communities, long-term care, nursing homes to publish this information. Because that's the way we're going to get through it."

As for Indiana, Dr. Box says daily, there isn't any plans for the state to name the locations of outbreaks at long-term care facilities.

That answer offers no comfort to Anna who is reeling from the experience.

"This isn't something that anyone on the globe really wanted," she says. "We're all just stuck dealing with it. Let's be compassionate for lives and lets keep people informed. Why is that such a problem?"

We reached out to American Senior Communities twice to ask if there was a confirmed case of the coronavirus at Bethlehem Woods.

They did not answer our question, instead sending this generic statement, included in its entirety:

ABC21 and the Digging Deeper team continues its work to understand how local nursing homes are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

If Allen County Health Officials and their state counterparts begin naming individual nursing homes, we'll be the first to let you know.

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Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is the producer of the ABC21 feature franchise “21Country”. He is constantly on the lookout for ideas that capture the “people, places, things, and history” that makes Northeast Indiana unique. Feel free to reach out:

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