Pa. to start more robust testing for nursing home residents, staff; AG investigates neglect

By KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Long-term care facilities continue to be hit hard by coronavirus. Given the pandemic's tremendous toll on nursing homes, the Wolf administration has decided to start testing every nursing home resident and employee at least once a week.

Gov. Tom Wolf said his administration will facilitate universal testing for congregate care homes.

“What we are going to do, which I think is fairly radical, is make sure that we are doing surveillance testing,” Wolf said.

Before patient returns to nursing home from hospital, they must be tested for #COVID19. By testing every resident + staff member in every nursing home we'll know exactly who has COVID-19, who has been exposed but has no symptoms, cohort positive cases + prevent further spread.

— PA Department of Health (@PAHealthDept) May 12, 2020

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine had previously said there was not enough available testing to test everyone in a nursing home. She also had said that testing everyone wasn't useful unless they were to be repeatedly tested to continue checking to see whether they became infected later.

Levine and her department have been under fire recently, accused of ignoring nursing homes and allowing COVID-19 to spread among residents. 

Now, she says the benefits of testing all residents and staff members outweigh the limitations of the tests.

“This strategy focuses on ensuring testing is accessible, available and adaptable to the evolving landscape of this virus,” Levine said Tuesday. “As we’re learning in terms of this novel coronavirus, many patients have no symptoms or they might be transferring the virus before the symptoms develop. So testing them before they start to develop symptoms, we’re missing people.”

“We know that COVID-19 didn’t suddenly appear in a nursing home. It had to be brought in by the staff, by the people who care for our residents in nursing homes — possibly someone who was asymptomatic at the time,” she added.

Levine said isolating those asymptomatic residents or staff members before they pass on the virus can significantly limit the spread.

Levine is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in both her personal and professional lives, as she and her family moved her mother out of a personal care home and into a private hotel. Her 95-year-old mother is aware and able to make her own decisions. Levine said she asked to be moved, and she and her sister complied with her request.

The virus has killed more than 2,600 residents of 540 nursing homes or personal care homes — or two-thirds of the state's death toll — and sickened more than 12,000 others, which comes to about one-fifth of the state's positive tests.

Pennsylvania added more than 800 new infections and 75 deaths to the state's COVID-19 toll on Tuesday. The Health Department said more than 3,800 people in the state have died from the pandemic and nearly 58,000 have been sickened.

Starting Tuesday, nursing homes must also provide numbers to the state the same way that hospitals report cases and deaths.

Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh welcomes the plan, as her county is one of the hardest-hit across the commonwealth, behind Philadelphia.

She said they expected a spike in long-term care facility cases as they test more people. Those cases need to be factored into the total cases in the county, but Arkoosh said they are tracking them separately, working with the state Health Department to differentiate the two.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county has dropped into the low 300s.

“This is very good news. We’re steadily in the 400s for a number of weeks. So it’s great to see these numbers coming down,” Arkoosh said. 

Arkoosh said all the progress has come because people have followed social distancing guidelines, and for this to work, people need to continue.

“If we don’t stay together we will fail. The decisions that people make today will determine the type of summer and fall that we will have. So please stay the course and please do it together as an entire community and we will beat this thing,” she said.

Criminal probes in nursing homes

Pennsylvania's top prosecutor has opened criminal investigations into several nursing homes amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The attorney general's office did not say how many facilities it is investigating, or reveal their names or provide any other details about the specific allegations. In general, the attorney general's office has jurisdiction in manners of criminal neglect.

“We will hold nursing facilities and caretakers criminally accountable if they fail to properly provide care to our loved ones,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a written statement. “While we salute and appreciate nursing home staff on the front lines during this pandemic, we will not tolerate those who mistreat our seniors and break the law.”

He said “active criminal investigations” are underway.

Pennsylvania National Guard

The Pennsylvania National Guard said some personnel are sick with COVID-19, including those who contracted the virus that causes the disease while deployed.

Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Keith Hickox said his agency has helped 13 long-term care facilities in response to the pandemic.

It's nearly impossible to know how the Guard troops became sick, he said, describing the total number as relatively low, considering what they have been doing.

Hickox said that medical staffers have helped out at nine facilities and that training has been done at five of them. The Guard is not disclosing the list of nursing homes and similar places they have been assisting.

The effort has involved more than 180 medical workers, mostly helping with comparatively less sick residents, so the facilities' own medical staff can focus where patients need it the most.

Others with the Guard are providing logistical help, cleaning, and training of facility staffers in the use of personal protective gear and decontamination, Hickox said.

All members are quarantined and tested when high-risk missions are completed, he said.

Defiant counties

On Monday, Wolf called out politicians who plan to move their counties from “red” to “yellow” in his three-phase reopening strategy sooner than they are supposed to, adding that their actions are “cowardly.”

On Tuesday, Wolf addressed his harsh tone, noting he was simply trying to get his point across.

“What I was trying to do was make it as clear as I possibly can — and I will continue to do this — that we’re all fighting a common enemy, and the enemy is not the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It’s not me, it’s not Donald Trump, it’s not the General Assembly. It’s this virus,” he said.

He feels his plan is the best way to fight the virus.

“We’ve done it the right way,” he added. “Moving from red to yellow in the way we’ve done, it was going to work. It’s a way of making sure we keep people safe and that’s the message I was trying to send yesterday. We are in a war, we’re fighting a common enemy, a virus. We need to concentrate on that. We’re trying to defeat that virus and keep people safe.”

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KYW Newsradio’s Rachel Kurland and Jim Melwert, as well as the Associated Press, contributed to this report.