HARRISBURG – As Pennsylvania begins this Friday to relax coronavirus restrictions in 24 counties, nursing homes are receiving increasing attention as the epicenter of the state’s outbreak.
Two-thirds of the more than 2,400 deaths linked to coronavirus in Pennsylvania have involved nursing home residents, according to state data released Friday.
State Rep. Rob Matzie, D-Beaver County, on Thursday announced plans for legislation to force the Department of Health to resume more in-person inspections at nursing homes in order to ensure that residents are being adequately protected.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all sectors of our commonwealth, but none more so than our nursing homes. Staff and residents are being infected at much higher rates than the general public, with the death toll alarmingly high. Clearly, enough is not being done to mitigate and combat COVID-19 in these facilities,” Matzie said in announcing his planned legislation.
“My bill will require the PA Department of Health to determine and assess each facility’s infection control procedures, provide testing for every resident and worker, record all findings and report said findings to the public,” he said.
Matzie’s district covers a portion of Beaver County, which is home to Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center where at least 58 people died in a coronavirus outbreak. The health department said it has installed a temporary manager there to monitor Brighton’s efforts to contain the virus and protect residents, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said.
Routine in-person inspections of nursing homes have been halted since the middle of March when the state shutdown non-essential businesses, said Nate Wardle, a Department of Health spokesman.
Wardle said that state has been following guidelines set by the federal government regarding how to handle nursing home inspections during the pandemic.
The Department of Health is conducting inspections prompted by complaints or allegations suggesting residents could be at risk of serious harm or death, Wardle said.
However those inspections “may be virtual in nature rather than a site visit,” he said.
The department does have the authority to conduct on-site inspections and is doing so, when officials decide it’s necessary, Wardle said.
Levine said that the state’s been responding aggressively to try to combat the spread of coronavirus in nursing homes, recognizing that seniors with other illnesses are more likely to come down with coronavirus and more likely to become extremely sick or die if they get it.
“We’re going to do everything we can,” she said. “We’re very concerned about seniors in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.”
On April 6, the Department of Health announced that it had hired the Emergency Care Research Institute, a non-profit based in Montgomery County, as a consultant to work with nursing homes to improve their infection control practices to try to limit the spread of coronavirus.
The contract with ECRI, worth just under $1 million, runs from April 6 through June 29, Wardle said.
“As of last week, ECRI had assisted with providing infection control expertise at more than 70 long-term care facilities, which includes nursing homes, personal care homes and assisted living,” Wardle said.
The Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, an independent state agency, has also been working with long-term care operators and has helped another 70 facilities, he said.
Pennsylvania is certainly not along in grappling with the challenges of coronavirus outbreaks in nursing homes. One of the first major coronavirus outbreaks in the United States was at a nursing home in Washington state.
President Trump on Thursday announced that nursing homes wll be required to report coronavirus cases to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that nursing homes will be required to notify nursing home residents and family members about coronavirus outbreaks in long-term care facilities.
In addition to the supplies already distributed, FEMA will send supplemental shipments of personal protective equipment to all 15,400 Medicaid and Medicare-certified nursing homes in America.
The AARP last week expressed concern about the safety inside the state’s nursing homes and called on the state to be more transparent about where coronavirus outbreaks are taking place.
The state Department of Health has begun releasing data on the number of cases within nursing homes, but has refused to publish a list naming the nursing homes with coronavirus outbreaks.
In the AARP letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, the organization raised other concerns, in addition to the need to publicize where coronavirus outbreaks have occurred. Those included the need for the state to better demonstrate that nursing homes have adequate staff in place to properly care for patients and that workers have access to personal protective equipment.
Industry officials have acknowledged that staffing and access to protective equipment and testing are concerns.
In a press call with reporters earlier this week, Zach Shamberg, the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, a trade group representing long-term care facilities, said that nursing homes have been paying staff hazard pay of $5 to $15 an hour extra to retain the workers they need.
Shamberg said that while staffing shortages have been a problem, he said he doubts they’ve directly contributed to outbreaks of coronavirus in long-term care facilities.
The fact that coronavirus can be spread by people without symptoms has just made it an extremely difficult disease to contain within facilities like nursing homes, he said.
“Even if we’re taking the necessary precautions,” he said, “the virus can still be spread.”