HARRISBURG — The state Department of Health announced plans Tuesday to begin testing every resident and every employee of Pennsylvania nursing homes as the state tries to control the deadly spread of coronavirus in long-term care facilities, which have been home to close to 70 percent of the people killed in the state’s coronavirus outbreak.
The state also plans to make wider use of the National Guard to provide mass testing and help staff nursing homes that have been hit hard by coronavirus, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said.
“What we are going to do, which I think is fairly radical, is to make sure we are doing surveillance testing,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a response to a question from CNHI’s Pennsylvania newspapers during a press call with reporters Tuesday.
Levine said while all residents and staff will need to be tested more than once, how often they are tested will depend on whether their facility is impacted by a coronavirus outbreak.
As of Tuesday, 2,611 of Pennsylvania’s 3,806 deaths from coronavirus have occurred in nursing homes. In Mercer County, only one COVID-19 case and no deaths have been traced to nursing homes.
Pennsylvania Department of Health does not release the names of individual nursing homes where confirmed cases have been discovered. In Ohio, which does provide that information, Trumbull County has had 24 cases since April 15 at nursing homes. Of those, 17 have been at O’Brien Memorial nursing home in Brookfield.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced Tuesday that his office is conducting investigations into “several” nursing homes to determine if patients were victims of criminal neglect. While regulation of nursing homes is the primary responsibility of the Department of Health, the AG’s office has the authority to intervene if there is evidence that neglect occurred.
“We will hold nursing facilities and caretakers criminally accountable if they fail to properly provide care to our loved ones,” Shapiro said. “Active criminal investigations are already underway and we encourage people to share relevant complaints with us on our special tip line so we can best protect people in nursing homes.”
The developments come as nursing homes have emerged as the epicenter of the state’s struggle to contain the coronavirus outbreak even as social-distancing restrictions are relaxed across much of the state.
The need for increased testing in nursing homes was scrutinized in a Senate hearing on Thursday, during which nursing home operators said the testing is essential to identify people who have coronavirus but aren’t exhibiting symptoms.
“It’s mindboggling we are not prioritized for testing,” Mary Kay McMahon, president and CEO, Fellowship Community, a nursing home in Lehigh County, said at that hearing.
Levine said that the state is only now moving to roll out universal testing because it didn’t have access to adequate testing supplies to do it sooner.
“Our nursing home residents are among the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, and we have taken swift action to protect them,” Levine said. “COVID-19 is a particularly challenging situation for these skilled nursing settings as they care for residents with serious medical conditions.
In addition to testing all patients within the nursing home, the state is also now directing nursing homes to begin testing all residents who are returning to the nursing home, even if that hospital stay was unrelated to coronavirus.
The head of trade group representing nursing homes and long-term care facilities welcomed the universal testing plan, saying nearby states have already implemented similar strategies.
“Our neighboring states, including Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, and New York, have prioritized testing for long-term care residents and workers, whether they exhibit symptoms or not,” said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association. “In the absence of a vaccine, this is the best method to address and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
Shapiro said that to help his office investigate for neglect, he’s launched an email address for reporting tips: neglect-COVID@attorneygeneral.gov. For concerns relating to wellness checks, adequate PPE, or COVID-19 testing within a facility, contact Department of Health at 1-800-254-5164.