GASTONIA, N.C. (WBTV) – Gayla McDaniel was concerned when she got a call last week from the nursing home where her uncle is recovering from a stroke.
The call from the staff at the Brian Center in Gastonia was to let her know that her uncle, 69-year-old Jerry Cartner, had been exposed to a staff member who tested positive for COVID-19.
That was last Tuesday. The next day, he was tested for the virus and his results came back positive early on Friday.
In that span of time, McDaniel said, he went from being able to call her and talk over FaceTime to being unconscious.
“They had a facetime chat with him yesterday,” McDaniel said in an interview Tuesday. “The nurses had to gear up. They put an iPad in a Ziplock bag and took him in there so I could see him. He’s not awake. He didn’t wake up at all.”
Records released by the Gaston County Health Department show Cartner is one of 15 residents that have tested positive for the virus, along with two staff members.
The paperwork shows the nursing home first reported a case on July 3 and the latest onset of symptoms was on July 7.
Despite that, the Brian Center in Gastonia is not included in the list of nursing home or other long-term care facilities with outbreaks released by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday.
The state defines an outbreak as two or more cases in a congregate living facility.
DHHS agreed to start publishing a list of outbreaks in April, after a group of media outlets, including WBTV, threatened to sue to get access to the data. The agency publishes an updated list of facilities with outbreaks every Tuesday and Friday at 4:00 p.m.
In addition to the Brian Center in Gastonia, four other facilities have reported outbreaks, according to the county.
Joy Smith, who heads the county health department’s communicable disease team, said in an interview on Wednesday that her staff takes reports of new cases in nursing homes from the facilities and then relays that information by phone to DHHS. The information is also put into an electronic database run by DHHS, she said.
Smith said DHHS has instructed the county to not disclose details of information input into the state database but could not cite any legal justification as to why that information would not be public.
Then county health officials sent worksheets summarizing the outbreaks at each of the five facilities to DHHS just after noon on Monday, July 13.
According to those worksheets, which were provided to WBTV in response to a records request, three of the facilities reported their first cases in late June—on the 27, 28 and 29, respectively—the Brian Center reported its first case on July 3 and the fifth facility notified the health department on July 13.
It is not clear from the worksheet when county health officials were notified of each of the 17 total cases at the Brian Center after the initial contact on July 3.
But only one of the five facilities was included in the list of outbreaks published more than a day later, at 4:00 on Tuesday, July 14.
Kelly Haight Connor, a spokeswoman for DHHS, sent the following statement in response to a question from WBTV about why four of the five facilities with outbreaks identified by Gaston County had not been publicly reported:
“Gaston reported four outbreaks to NCDHHS on July 13. The Ongoing Outbreaks in Congregate Living Settings Report is updated twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. It includes the names of facilities where there is an ongoing outbreak and the number of positive COVID-19 cases at the facility related to that outbreak. The information from Gaston County will be included in the next report.”
Haight Connor did not respond to a follow-up email from a reporter pointing out the information on the one facility that was included was sent at the same time as the other four. Nor did she immediately respond to questions asking what information DHHS uses to populate its list: whether it relied on the worksheets to be sent in by the county, pulled data from its electronic database or collected information called in over the phone by counties.
Gayla McDaniel, whose uncle is battling COVID-19 at a nursing home, said she wishes more would be done to alert the public.
“I think, when you’re exposed, family members should know immediately,” she said of nursing home residents exposed to COVID-19. “You know, the community should know. Everybody should know that there was an exposure.”