2022 Topical Reporting: Pandemic Coverage, Portfolio finalist

Covid Risk In Hospitals

About the Project

Steven Johnson survived colon cancer, and meticulously avoided being exposed to covid-19.

Then the 66-year-old wound up in a Florida hospital for minor surgery. Thirteen days later, he could barely breathe and tested positive for the coronavirus. His wife, a pharmacist, said he got infected inside the hospital.

Shortly thereafter, Johnson was dead.

Tragic cases like his had been hidden from public view until KHN’s groundbreaking three-part investigation discovered that more than 10,000 people were diagnosed with covid in 2020 after being hospitalized for something else. About 21% of them died.

Nobody else, including medical researchers or government agencies, had been publicly documenting when and where those patients got infected, who was responsible, and what regulators had been doing about it. Unlike other hospital-acquired infections such as MRSA or C. diff, hospital-acquired covid infections aren’t disclosed to the public on a per-hospital basis. This is particularly notable considering that other countries documented them.

KHN reporters Christina Jewett and Lauren Weber worked with a Nashville-based data analytics firm to examine hospital billing records submitted to state and federal authorities. Their revelations—and the human stories—were striking, even ghastly.

And KHN discovered thousands of U.S. hospitals never received rigorous covid inspections in the midst of the pandemic—a shortfall that former Medicare chief Seema Verma told KHN “is something to be corrected.” Though government inspectors visited nearly every nursing home in 2020, private accreditors who are paid to examine hospitals failed to do the same, even after Medicare asked them to act beginning in March 2020. When hospitals with high rates of covid diagnosis after admission were inspected, little was done to hold hospitals accountable.

To make matters worse, patients and their families seeking to take legal action to force hospitals to make improvements have run into walls. Throughout the pandemic, lawmakers nationwide have passed laws, declared emergency orders, or activated state-of-emergency statutes that severely limited families’ ability to seek recourse for lapses in covid-related care.

“My mom is not like one of those people who would say ‘Go sue them,’” said Kim Crail, who believes her 79-year-old mom contracted covid during an eight-day stay at a hospital in Kentucky. “But she just wouldn’t want it to happen to anyone else.”

The investigation by Jewett and Weber clearly explained why so many died so tragically, and unnecessarily. Their review of work-safety records and medical literature and their interviews with hospital staff showed hospital leaders were slow to appreciate the coronavirus’s airborne nature, which made coughing patients hazardous to roommates and staff members, who often wore less-protective surgical masks instead of N95s. Hospitals failed to test every admitted patient, enabled by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that left such testing to the “discretion of the facility.” Management often failed to inform workers when they’d been exposed to covid and were at risk of spreading it themselves.

In the wake of Jewett and Weber’s pioneering reporting, CMS is reviewing its inspection rules and looking into covid infections within hospitals.