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Laws Shield Hospitals From Families Who Believe Loved Ones Contracted Covid as Patients

California :After Amanda Wilson lost her son, Braden, 15, to covid-19 in early 2021, she tried to honor his memory. She put up a lending library box in his name. She plans to give the money she saved for his college education to other teens who love the arts and technology. But in one area, she hit a brick wall: attempting to force change at the California hospital where she believes her son contracted covid in December 2020. While seeking treatment for a bleeding cyst, Braden was surrounded for hours by coughing patients in the emergency room, Wilson said. Yet, she said, she has been unable to get the hospital to show her improvements it told her it made or get a lawyer to take her case. “I was pretty shocked,” Wilson said. “There’s truly no recourse.” Throughout the pandemic, lawmakers from coast to coast 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. Under such liability shields, legal advocates say, it’s nearly impossible to seek the legal accountability that can pry open information and drive systemic improvements to the infection-control practices that make hospitals safer for patients. “Lawsuits are there for accountability and truth to be exposed,” said Kate Miceli, state affairs counsel for the American Association for Justice, which advocates for plaintiff lawyers. “These laws are absolutely preventing that.” A previous KHN investigation documented that more than 10,000 people tested positive for covid after they were hospitalized for something else in 2020. Yet many others, including Braden Wilson, are not counted in those numbers because they were discharged before testing positive. Still, the KHN findings are the only nationally publicly available data showing rates of patients who tested positive for covid after admission into individual U.S. hospitals. Those who have lost a family member say hospitals need to be held more accountable. “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 Edgewood, Kentucky, because she tested positive less than 48 hours after leaving. “But she just wouldn’t want it to happen to anyone else.” ‘You Put Your Trust in the Hospital’ At age 89, Yan Keynigshteyn had begun to fade with dementia. But he was still living at home until he was admitted to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles for a urological condition, according to Terry Ayzman, his grandson. Keynigshteyn, a Soviet Union emigrant who did not understand English, found himself in an unfamiliar place with masked caregivers. The hospital confined him to his bed, Ayzman said. He did not understand how to navigate the family’s Zoom calls and, eventually, stopped talking. He was tested regularly for covid during his two-week-plus stay, Ayzman said. On Keynigshteyn’s way home in an ambulance, his doctor got test results showing he had tested positive for covid. It can take two to 14 days from exposure to covid for patients to start showing symptoms such as a fever, though the average is four to five days. His grandson believes that because Keynigshteyn was in the hospital for over two weeks before testing positive, he contracted covid at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. As the ambulance doors opened and Keynigshteyn finally saw his wife and other family members, he smiled for the first time in weeks, Ayzman said. Then the crew slammed the doors shut and took him back to the hospital. A few days later, Keynigshteyn died. “You put your trust in the hospital and you get the short end of the stick,” Ayzman said. “It wasn’t supposed to be like that.” Ayzman wanted to find out more from the hospital, but he said officials there refused to give him a copy of its investigation into his grandfather’s case, saying it was an internal matter and the results were inconclusive. Hospital spokesperson Phil Hampton did not answer questions about Keynigshteyn. “UCLA Health’s overriding priority is the safety of patients, employees, visitors and volunteers,” he said, adding that the health system has been consistent with or exceeded infection-control protocols at the local, state and federal level throughout the pandemic. Ayzman reached out to five lawyers, but he said none would take the case. He said they all told him courts were unsympathetic to cases against health care institutions at the time. “I don’t believe that a state of emergency should give a license to hospitals to get away with things scot-free,” Ayzman said. The Current State of Legal Play The avalanche of liability shield legislation was pitched as a way to prevent a wave of lawsuits, Miceli said. But it created an “unreasonable standard” for patients and families, she said, since a state-of-emergency raises the bar for filing medical malpractice cases and already makes many lawyers hesitant to take such cases. Almost every state put extra liability shield protections in place during the pandemic, Miceli said. Some of them broadly protected institutions such as hospitals, while others were more focused on shielding health care workers. Corporate-backed groups, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, American Tort Reform Association and the National Council of Insurance Legislators, helped pass a range of liability shield bills across the country through lobbying, working with state partners or drafting forms of model legislation, a KHN review has found. William Melofchik, general counsel for NCOIL, said member legislators drafted their model bill because they felt it was important to guard against a never-ending wave of litigation and to be “better safe than sorry.” Nathan Morris, vice president of legislative affairs for the Chamber’s Institute for Leg