Pennsylvania nursing homes will have to have all residents and staff members tested for COVID-19 no later than July 24, Governor Tom Wolf’s administration announced Monday.
The universal testing order will require long-term care living facilities in the commonwealth to conduct COVID-19 baseline testing for all residents and staff, the Department of Health noted on June 8. This will include any individual who has never been tested, and any resident or staff member who tested negative prior to May 24. Those who have previously tested positive are not to be tested.
Facilities that have tested all residents and staff since May 24 may count that testing as meeting the initial baseline testing requirement, provided that information is included in the data collection survey specified in Monday’s order.
Once testing is completed, facilities have two days to report their results to the Department of Health, or three days if baseline testing has been completed before Monday’s order was issued.
Long-term care living facilities have been hotbeds for COVID-19 activity throughout the pandemic in Pennsylvania, with seniors and disabled individuals counted as particularly vulnerable populations.
According to the Department of Health, more than two-thirds of all COVID-19 deaths in the commonwealth – 4,094 out of 5,953 – have occurred in a long-term care living facility, and 18,974 individuals at 615 facilities – including 16,167 patients and 2,807 staff members – have been diagnosed with the disease.
In Monroe County alone, 42 deaths due to COVID-19 have been traced to eight facilities, where 152 patients and 44 staff members have had cases confirmed.
“Our goal with implementing this universal testing in nursing homes is to rapidly detect asymptomatic positive residents, manage their care and prevent further transmission of COVID-19 in these living settings,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. “We are working tirelessly to include all long-term care facilities in this strategy as soon as possible. At this point, we are able to successfully expand testing and support to all staff and residents to further protect those in nursing homes across Pennsylvania.”
The Department of Health originally ran a universal testing pilot project at five long-term care living facilities across the commonwealth from May 11 to May 26.
The department is working with additional facilities to implement universal testing by providing testing supplies, access to the Bureau of Laboratories, and staffing support through the Pennsylvania National Guard to train and assist with testing.
Widespread testing has been completed at 75 long-term care living facilities so far, and testing at such facilities has increased 48% over the last two weeks, the department reported. Results have shown that the percent of positive cases din this population are at their lowest since the start of the outbreak.
Drew Lutton, administrator of Pleasant Valley Manor in Stroudsburg, said that administrators at his facility welcome the order.
“To me, when it comes to universal testing, we’d be happy to have the state mandate it,” Lutton said.
Lutton said that the question of testing residents and staff has come up often as Pleasant Valley Manor works toward returning to some sort of normalcy. Staff and managers were happy to hear about the requirement for testing, taking precedence over previous suggestions and advice from government entities that lacked the weight of Monday’s order.
While facilities will still have to develop their own procedures to implement the testing, Wolf’s order does provide some semblance of structure and assistance for facilities, Lutton said.
“It’s a good thing, because it provides us with the support we need,” Lutton said.
In addition, the department released updated testing guidance for all long-term care living facilities, including skilled nursing homes, personal care homes, assisted living residences, community residential rehabilitation services, long-term structured residences, and more.
According to the Department of Health, the guidance provides a “renewed focus” on keeping the virus out of facilities by testing all staff and residents, implementing facility-wide testing when a resident or staff members comes down with a new case, and stopping the spread of the virus by continuing weekly testing for all residents and staff until there are no new positive cases for 14 days.
Long-term care living facilities in the commonwealth have required significant help from the state government over the course of the pandemic. The Department of Health notes that as of June 5, these facilities have received 1,870 shipments of personal protective equipment, including 131,700 face shields, 792,000 gloves, 2,632,280 N95 masks and 881,700 surgical masks. In addition, 55 Pennsylvania National Guard Strike Teams have been deployed to 27 different long-term care living facilities, including Gracedale Nursing Home in Nazareth.
Working alongside the Emergency Care Research Institute and the Patient Safety Authority, the department has provided infection control and technical assistance to 190 long-term care living facilities combined. The Education Support and Clinical Consultation Program team has provided clinical guidance, assistance with infection control strategies and clinical needs identification to over 250 facilities.
“Throughout this pandemic, we have worked tirelessly to provide the most up-to-date and accurate information,” Levine said. “It is essential that nursing homes are providing complete and accurate data to the department so we can collect that information and inform the public. We are committed to working with each facility to ensure they have the support needed to provide high quality care to their patients.”