Universal testing for nursing homes and long-term care facilities is the state’s latest plan to combat a rising COVID-19 death toll among elderly residents of those facilities. In Franklin County, as of Monday, 9 of the county’s 15 COVID-19 deaths were nursing home residents. Most of those were at one facility, according to one local source.
Pennsylvania’s top health official said the state will deploy a universal testing strategy at nursing homes and personal care facilities to stem the spread of COVID-19.
More than two-thirds of the state’s 3,800 deaths attributed to the coronavirus occurred among patients livings in communal care settings, mirroring a nationwide trend that sees COVID-19’s deadliest complications disproportionately impacting residents and staff in these facilities.
Approximately 46,500 residents live scattered among more than 2,000 nursing homes and licensed personal care facilities in Pennsylvania. Among them, nearly 12,000 have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 2,500 have died. Another 1,600 workers have also become infected, according to the Department of Health.
“Our nursing home residents are among the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, and we have taken swift action to protect them,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. “COVID-19 is a particularly challenging situation for these skilled nursing settings as they care for residents with serious medical conditions. We will continue to work to ensure the safety and wellbeing of residents through education, resources and testing.”
Announcement follows groundswell of criticism
Levine said the state will now require all patients entering nursing homes from the hospital receive a COVID-19 test. This will help catch undetected cases and give staff an opportunity to isolate the resident from the rest of those living in the facility. Levine said the department also rolled out a pilot study in two facilities to test the logistics of universal testing for staff and patients in order to identify and contain outbreaks before they wreak havoc.
Getting infection rates in nursing homes under control remains critical to many counties moving from the most restrictive red phase of pandemic mitigation efforts to the more cautionary yellow phase, the administration said.
The announcement follows a groundswell of criticism brewing among legislators who believe the administration botched its response to nursing home outbreaks.
“A joint public hearing last week clearly detailed the severe impact that COVID-19 has had on nursing homes and long-term care facilities,” said Senate President Pro Temp Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. “Overall, they were not adequately equipped nor prepared to handle a crisis of this magnitude.”
The chamber unanimously approved Senate Bill 1122 on Tuesday that would provide $507 million from Pennsylvania’s $4 billion share of federal CARES Act relief funding to support the COVID-19 response in residential care facilities. The legislation also allocates a $31 million grant to emergency medical services to replace lost revenue from canceled fundraisers.
“These organizations have seen their fundraising efforts curtailed and revenues from non-emergency transportation services by EMS companies were basically eliminated by COVID-19,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said. “Unfortunately, many companies across Pennsylvania were financially struggling even before the outbreak. This grant program provides funding to allow Pennsylvania’s first responders to continue to answer the call when needed and keep their communities safe.”
PA House also has a containment plan
The House on Monday approved their own $500 million response plan for nursing homes that would funnel federal relief dollars through academic health systems to implement containment strategies on a regional level.
“Protecting our most vulnerable citizens is the top job of government during the COVID pandemic, and thanks to the lack of state action, it has become an urgent situation,” said House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny. “The Senior Protection Act, developed by medical experts, is a data-driven direct response to the COVID-19 crisis here. Senior adults, many with underlying health issues, deserve to live in facilities following the best medical practices, and their families deserve the peace of mind.”
A national survey conducted by the GS Strategy Group found that two-thirds of polled voters believe nursing homes need more aid to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and 72 percent agree that a lack of government funding has negatively impacted the quality of care as these facilities.
Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.