Residents and staff members at hundreds of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Washington state will get testing for COVID-19 this month.
In mid-May the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Service, or CMS, issued guidance for nursing homes and long-term care facilities to reopen in a phased approach but advised states to conduct a baseline test at these facilities first.
The Washington State Department of Health has initiated a statewide testing effort to test all residents and staff members in nursing homes by Friday and in every assisted living facility with a memory care unit by June 26.
Secretary of Health John Wiesman issued an order on May 28 that applies to all facilities unless they have done facility-wide testing on or after April 1.
There are COVID-19 cases connected to 195 facilities statewide. Cumulatively, 345 facilities have had COVID-19 cases, according to data from the state Department of Social and Human Services.
The state is beginning its testing efforts with 211 skilled nursing facilities before moving to assisted living facilities with memory care units. In Spokane County, health officials estimate that about 260 facilities will be covered by this testing initiative.
The Department of Health is providing test kits and personal protective equipment to nursing homes for them to test all their residents and employees, and facilities do not have to pay labs to run the tests. Medicaid and Medicare patients and staff members will be covered by those programs, and the state will pay for testing that is not covered by those programs. Testing will be free for both facilities as well as residents and staff.
Under Wiesman’s order, a staff member can be a volunteer, employee or contractor who provides care in a facility.
Testing for COVID-19, while important, is really like a point-in-time count, and a person could test negative first and then positive just a few days later. Even so, state health officials said the testing initiative is worthwhile.
“In terms of effectiveness, this is a point prevalence study, a snapshot in time. It helps us continue to build an idea of how transmission occurs to better prepare for and respond to current and future outbreaks,” Dr. Charissa Fotinos, deputy chief medical officer at the Health Care Authority, who is handling the testing part of the state response to COVID-19, said in an emailed statement.
“Presumably with no visitors beyond staff there shouldn’t be that many positives, but if there are, it gives us more information about transmission and/or helps the facility take a closer look at staffing and their infection control practices,” she continued. “All of this continues to add to our understanding of how the disease is transmitted and manifests.”
The state is slightly behind schedule in sending out testing supplies, Fotinos told reporters this week, due to a backlog on the specific type of shipping package needed to safely send the samples to labs. The state has ordered more of these materials, and Fotinos said she expects them to arrive soon.
Coordinating testing in some assisted living facilities is more challenging due to fewer medical staff typically working at those facilities compared to skilled nursing facilities, Fotinos said. Nursing staff would need to collect the samples from residents, and not all long-term care facilities have robust nursing staff.
Locally, there are COVID-19 cases in three assisted living facilities and a handful of adult family homes .
After Gov. Jay Inslee extended several state orders pertaining to nursing homes and assisted living facilities statewide, visitation is still restricted at long-term care facilities until June 17.
CMS has released guidelines for reopening long-term care facilities to visitors, but how that will happen in Washington is still uncertain. Officials from the Department of Health and other state agencies are developing reopening guidelines for facilities .
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