Beaver County Coroner David Gabauer can’t say for sure how many Beaver Countians have died from the novel coronavirus, and county commissioners have received conflicting information from state officials on the number of people infected.
At the epicenter of confusion and concern is the Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center, a 589-bed, for-profit nursing home in Brighton Township.
BeaverCountian.com reported about the first confirmed COVID-19 case at the nursing home on March 27, when the facility expressed optimism the virus hadn’t spread. By April 6, Brighton Rehab had issued a press release stating they were “presuming all staff and residents may be positive.”
The media has heard nothing from the facility since April 7 when it attempted to clarify its press release from the day before.
The silence that came from stonewalling by Brighton Rehab was broken Tuesday, when BeaverCountian.com reported county officials were notified by the state that at least 104 patients were believed to be infected with the virus.
The situation received enormous attention Wednesday night when MSNBC primetime anchor Rachel Maddow included Brighton Rehab as part of a segment about the federal government’s failure to track COVID-19 cases in nursing homes. Maddow highlighted reporting by BeaverCountian.com and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
BeaverCountian.com’s article focused on the number of patients believed to be infected with the virus at Brighton Rehab, but also briefly mentioned precautions being taken in the county given the pandemic, including the nursing home being removed from public transit bus routes and Bradys Run ice rink being refrozen in case it was needed as a contingency morgue.
Maddow’s staff interviewed Commissioner Chairman Dan Camp on background just minutes before The Rachel Maddow Show was set to begin at 9 p.m. Maddow then took to the airwaves with a report that seized on the ice rink, using it to highlight just how massive the potential devastation could be in a nursing home as large as Brighton Rehab if COVID-19 flared out of control.
She emphasized the difficulty in getting information on the number of nursing home patients who have become ill or died from the virus.
“To get the news about these things, to get the reporting on these things, don’t go to the federal government; don’t go to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services which are responsible for overseeing longterm care facilities in this country,” Maddow said. “They’re just not doing it. They’re not working on this at all. So it’s, find your local paper, browse around, see what you can figure out in terms of the numbers. See what you can figure out in terms of who might need help. That’s all we’ve got.”
When county commissioners awoke Thursday morning, they found themselves inundated with outrage from the public. Why hadn’t the commissioners’ contingency plans ever been publicly discussed? Why had they spoken out to express displeasure with continued work at Shell Chemical’s construction site, but remained silent on the outbreak at Brighton Rehab? Just how many people were sick? How many lives were lost?
It was too much. The onslaught brought on by Maddow meant commissioners couldn’t wait any longer, they had to speak.
Joined by Commissioners Jack Manning and Tony Amadio, Camp hastily organized a press conference on the courthouse steps.
Finally Speaking Out
“My colleagues and I called for this press conference today to address and answer the many questions that have been raised on a local and national level concerning the issues specifically surrounding Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center,” Camp said as the media event began, shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon.
He started with the freezing of the ice arena, stressing it was part of an emergency preparedness plan for “a worst-case scenario,” and not an action undertaken based on a current need. He then turned his attention toward the PA Department of Health (DOH), which county commissioners had privately been expressing frustration about for weeks.
“On Tuesday, April 14th, the state Emergency Operations Center made our (Emergency Management Services) aware of three nursing homes in Beaver County with positive COVID-19 cases and provided the following information: Brighton Rehab and Wellness, 104, Rochester Manor & Villa 1, Villa St. Joseph, 1,” he announced.
“At this time and after talking to the PA Department of Health, they are confirming two nursing homes, 70 total cases; 61 residents in those nursing homes, nine employees, with 10 deaths. We have ongoing concerns with the Department of Health’s and Brighton Rehab’s figures and released the information. It is difficult to prepare and answer questions from our citizens and communities when the information we are getting appears to be inaccurate, delayed, and non-existent, coming from these entities …
“With the discrepancies in the information at this time and the lack of response we have been getting, it makes it difficult for the county to know exactly what we need to prepare for. Beaver County Emergency Services has been proactive in reaching out to representatives at Brighton Rehab, but have gotten little if any feedback. Today we ask the management of Brighton Rehab to be transparent, as it is important to those with loved ones living there, the local medical facilities, and the community at large to understand the situation in their facility.”
In response to questions from the media, Camp said to the best of his knowledge Brighton Rehab was reporting its cases to the state.
Thursday’s confusion was punctuated by a pair of conflicting public statements issued by County Coroner David Gabauer. They were the result of a week begun on April 13 with BeaverCountian.com questioning state officials about apparent discrepancies in statistics on COVID-19 cases.
The number of deaths being released by Gabauer was larger than numbers reported DOH. When contacted for an explanation, DOH spokesman Nate Wardle pointed in Gabauer’s direction.
“The Beaver County Coroner is reporting deaths as he signs the death certificate,” Wardle said. “At times, there may be delays from the local officials in putting that information into our system. The department is working each day to reconcile the information coming in from hospitals and from death certificates to work to provide the most accurate information available as of midnight.”
Wardle went so far as to include a link to what he called a “guidance for coroners” section of DOH’s website.
BeaverCountian.com published the statement by DOH on Tuesday night as part of its report on Brighton Rehab. On Wednesday night, BeaverCountian.com received an email from dDaniel Advertising Agency asking if it would publish a press release that was being prepared for Gabauer. The firm stated that along with handling advertising for Gabuaer’s funeral homes, it also “handles all official news/campaigning information for David Gabauer in his capacity as Coroner of Beaver County.”
The press release arrived at noon Thursday, four hours before the commissioners would ultimately hold their press conference.
“The reporting that our notifications to the state have been, or are being, delayed is incorrect,” Gabauer stated.
His statement later continued, “Let me underscore this statement: The official data concerning the coronavirus in Beaver County comes from the Beaver County Coroner’s Office alone … In this time of great confusion, there has been much mishandling of the facts and misdirection and it can be difficult for people to know what or whom to believe.”
Attached to the press release was a copy of a letter Gabauer had sent out on April 1 to local nursing homes and hospitals. The correspondence “ordered” the medical facilities to contact his office about every potential COVID-19 related death that occurs.
“You may have received some rather confusing directives from the DOH,” he wrote. “To clarify, I am requiring all confirmed coronavirus deaths, or suspected coronavirus deaths where testing results have not yet been received, to be reported to my office.”
Gabauer highlighted a section of state law he believed empowered his office to issue the mandate.
“It is your obligation to immediately report any and all deaths that occur under the above-mentioned circumstance. This order shall remain in place until such time that is revised or suspended by this office.”
While Gabauer’s press release made clear he believed only his office had accurate information on county COVID-19 deaths, it provided no actual data on the number of deaths that had occurred. BeaverCountian.com wrote back to the advertising agency asking for those statistics. The ad firm instructed BeaverCountian.com to contact the coroner’s office directly. Gabauer and his staff failed to respond to emails.
While Gabauer had been invited to join commissioners at their Thursday press conference, he was notably absent. In response to a question by BeaverCountian.com, Camp said Gabauer had not provided commissioners with updated statistics on the number of COVID-19 deaths.
It is unclear what happened in the interim, but shortly after 8 p.m., Gabauer issued a second statement, this time as a post to his Facebook page.
“There has been a lot of speculation, confusion, and unanswered questions regarding the current state of our county in regards to the Coronavirus,” Gabauer wrote.
“I have, since this press release was sent out, learned that there are some agencies within Beaver County that have decided that they would not comply with my request to report these deaths to my office. As a result, I just want everyone to know that I will not have exact numbers regarding the number of deaths from Covid-19, nor will I know where all of these deaths occurred. The only source that will have an exact count will be the Pennsylvania Department of Health.”
Camp and Manning say they’re not sure what caused the dramatic change in Gabauer’s statements, but both commissioners expressed immense frustration.
A week that had started with hope for clarity in a time of crisis had ended with even more confusion.