Cobb County

Are nursing homes accurately counting coronavirus deaths? One family says no

ATLANTA — There are new questions over the accuracy of the coronavirus count at long term care and nursing home facilities.

Health officials call the facilities ground zero for COVID-19 infections.

As of April 24, Georgia had 377 people die at nursing homes out of the 1,038 coronavirus deaths statewide.

That accounts for 36% of cases in the state.

Channel 2’s Sophia Choi started looking into the issue after hearing from a local family whose loved one died showing COVID-19 symptoms.

Russell Harp died at the Roselane Health and Rehabilitation Center in Marietta after his roommate died from similar symptoms.

[READ: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA: GA becomes 11th state to report more than 1,000 deaths]

Currently, the state website that tracks coronavirus cases shows Roselane has 23 out of 97 residents testing positive for the virus -- that's more than 20% of the residents.

The facility has also had four deaths. Those numbers have been rising since Channel 2 Action News started investigating.

Harp’s family believes the case numbers are artificially low because people like their grandfather aren't even being tested.

Their story also brings up the issue of whether coroners need to be present when someone dies at a nursing home.

Harp died under a complicated situation a week ago. His family said it all started after his roommate died from coronavirus-like symptoms.

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“He was just the salt of the Earth hard worker. Saved every penny. Lived very simply," Harp’s granddaughter Victoria Harp said. “They told us even though they couldn’t disclose the cause of death, that our grandfather was going to be moved to isolation and that a COVID-19 test had been administered."

Despite nurses tending in full PPE gear, the 86-year-old grandfather got worse, so the family kept asking about the test results.

“We were very nervous and kept inquiring," Victoria Harp said.

At least six times, they got the same answer.

“We were again assured that a test had been administered and were awaiting the results," Victoria Harp said.

With that assurance, they had no problem with the funeral home embalming Russell Harp's body, when he died.

“It was a shock to us yesterday afternoon, when someone called from the Roselane Rehabilitation Center introduced himself as an administrator and said -- offered no apology, but that no test was provided to our grandfather," Victoria Harp said.

The family told Choi that Cobb health sent a test labeled for their grandfather, but they say Roselane's head nurse took control of it and used it on someone else.

Now, it's too late to test his body.

Cobb County Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Gulledge sent Channel 2 Action News a statement, saying:

“Performing COVID testing in an embalmed body, in our medical opinion, would be futile. At that point, the body would no longer be considered infectious as the embalming process is toxic to living organisms.”

The family told Choi that Roselane decided to use Russell Harp's prior medical history to come up with a cause of death, instead.

“Meaning it would not be attributed to COVID-19, it would be attributed to maybe something they could find in his past. That’s kind of like, ‘Well we can’t really figure out what kind of cancer you have so we’re going to say you died of a cold,’” Victoria Harp said.

Like with a lot of deaths at long term care facilities, a medical professional on site handled Russell Harp's death and no coroner was called.

That practice brings up a yearslong fight for Georgia’s long-term care ombudsman, Melanie McNeil.

“If you die in a nursing home, a coroner should still be called. They’re not investigators, they’re not death investigators, they’re health care providers,” McNeil said. “Probably most of the times, the cause of death is whatever the facility says it is. But we know, there are times when that’s not the case."

Russell Harp's granddaughter now wonders how many others did not get a COVID-19 test before possibly dying from it.

“I think the reason why people need to know this is happening is because nursing homes don’t want infectious diseases to be listed as taking place in their facilities, or contagious viruses. That affects their funding, it affects how they look on ratings,” Victoria Harp said. “They are having fatalities at this center, that they are treating them as COVID-19 patients, and then not reporting it."

“The coroner wasn’t called. This would have been a situation, I would think, that it might be important to call the coroner, especially when we’re trying to keep a track of who has COVID and who’s died from it,” McNeil said.

Roselane's owner, Annaliese Impink, sent Channel 2 Action News a statement, saying, in part:

“We understand and greatly appreciate the community’s concern, and are doing everything in our power to keep our residents safe and protected. We will continue to be transparent with information released to the authorities, family members and the wider public, while maintaining the dignity and privacy of each of our residents, and following HIPAA regulations.”

Prior to last week, facilities like Roselane voluntarily shared information about COVID-19 cases and deaths.

But a new federal mandate now requires them to report cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and residents' families.

“I don’t want them to shut their doors. That is not what I want, and I don’t want people to get fired. But I do want policies to be put in place, procedures to be put in place. I don’t want this to happen to other families," Victoria Harp said.

Channel 2 Action News contacted Cobb County Public Health to see what they had to say about this case and the possibility that not all COVID-19 deaths at long-term care facilities are being counted.

They said HIPPA concerns keep them from talking about Russell Harp's death but they are now working with the National Guard and WellStar Health Systems to go into those facilities to clean and test residents.

During the last legislative session, House Bill 955 would have required a medical examiner or coroner to attend to a nursing home resident's death, instead of just taking the word of the facility's medical professionals.

A committee later took that measure out of the bill.