Rep. Gonzalez urges publishing of nursing home data

PHARR — U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez is joining a chorus of fellow House Democrats calling for transparency in the release of information as it relates to assisted living facilities impacted by COVID-19.

Gonzalez, D-McAllen, is among 77 other lawmakers who issued a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma on Friday, specifically requesting a more aggressive approach to the release and publication of information about individuals infected with COVID-19 in these facilities.

The congressman said he’s simply unconvinced that more details cannot be released on these cases.

“We’re trying to get more data. We’re trying to track the data on the coronavirus patients. We feel, especially in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, that we’re not getting the transparency that’s required,” Gonzalez said. “We want to make sure that our seniors are well cared for. A lot of the fatalities that have occurred across the country are from senior care facilities.”

Speaking broadly and in relation to Hidalgo County officials remaining hesitant to release information from one assisted living facility in Pharr — The Gardens at Brookridge Assisted Living, which on April 10 informed residents and family of another resident having tested positive for COVID-19 — Gonzalez said he is concerned with limiting the release of additional details to the public.

County officials have said they are legally barred, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, not only from releasing details but even confirming the case reported by The Gardens at Brookridge.

On Monday, Sunshine Retirement Living, who owns and operates The Gardens at Brookridge, issued a statement in response to questions regarding the resident diagnosed with COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, one of our residents who lived in the community from April 1 to April 6 was diagnosed with COVID-19. Our local health management team immediately followed all guidelines set forth by the CDC to help prevent the spread of infection, including notifying local medical professionals and health authorities and isolating the resident,” the statement read.

Sunshine Retirement Living has also reported that there have been no new diagnoses reported at The Gardens.

“At this time, we are very fortunate to report that there are no additional reported or suspected cases of COVID-19 at The Gardens of Brook Ridge,” the statement further read.

Santos Barrientos, executive director of The Gardens of Brook Ridge, added in the statement: “In the event that one of our valued residents becomes ill for any reason, our first priority is … their health and safety and that of our other residents and our employees too. In these challenging times, we continue to implement strict and vigorous measures to prevent the spread of infection.”

For Gonzalez, he’s “particularly concerned” with acquiring more information for his district as he works toward the welfare of those who are vulnerable in the area.

Asked his thoughts on the county’s conservative style of releasing some information, Gonzalez said, “I think they may be wrong on that.”

“In fact, I believe that they should be informing the public of infections so people can protect themselves,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez also said that more transparency with the information will help more people stay safe and protect themselves. He said that laws should be more flexible during a national emergency.

“We need to keep our people safe, and having information for the public is very important,” Gonzalez said.