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Universal coronavirus testing at Pennsylvania nursing homes? Some say it’s ‘an idea without a plan.’

Pennsylvania officials this week touted a push to test more nursing home residents and staff, but operators say the state has offered not help and that nothing has changed other than expectations from the public and staff.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine advocated for a surge in COVID-19 testing at nursing homes this week, but operators say her department has offered no guidance or help when asked.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine advocated for a surge in COVID-19 testing at nursing homes this week, but operators say her department has offered no guidance or help when asked.Read moreCommonwealth Media Services

Two days after Gov. Tom Wolf said Pennsylvania nursing home residents and staff would be tested “once a week” for the coronavirus and his health secretary spoke of “universal testing,” not much has changed for operators seeking help and guidance from state and other officials.

One Montgomery County nursing home reached out to an emergency management official and was told in an email Wednesday that the official had received “no word of how the state plan for testing is going to roll out.” The advice was to turn to the local health department for help, said Paula Sanders, a lawyer for the facility that was seeking guidance.

The local health department told the operator to go to the state, which responded Wednesday evening that the state Department of Health is “reviewing all questions and testing requests,” according to another email provided by Sanders.

“They rolled out an idea without a plan, and they’ve created false expectations and confusion in the public and among employees,” said Sanders, a principal at Post & Schell, a law firm in Harrisburg. She said she hads heard from several homes that had been unable to get guidance from Health Department officials as of Thursday afternoon.

Sanders declined to name the facilities, saying they feared retribution from Health Department officials.

A spokesman for the state Health Department said Thursday that officials are responding to inquiries on testing.

“The department has been working with facilities to ensure they have a lab they work with who can test the specimens and provide results,” spokesperson Nate Wardle said. “If they do not, we are working with them to provide the testing through the state public health laboratory.”

That lab can test 750 specimens a day.

A shortage of testing supplies remains a problem, the emergency management official said in his email to a Montgomery County nursing home.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine told reporters Tuesday that the state was able to push for far more nursing home tests than before because until this month, “it’s been extremely challenging to get the supplies and the swabs needed to be able to perform this significant amount of testing.”

Wardle said the state had received 20,000 swabs from the federal government in recent days and was expecting to get significantly more in the coming weeks. “This will help in our efforts to ensure we have the supplies necessary to provide tests to those facilities that need them,” he said.

The state has about 75,000 nursing home residents in 695 facilities. An additional 45,000 live in nearly 1,200 personal care homes. Those long-term-care facilities employ 143,000 people, according to the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, a trade group.

Levine spoke of “testing every resident and staff member” on Tuesday, but a local Department of Health office had received no notice that testing was required, according to a nursing home administrator in Delaware County.

ECRI, a Plymouth Meeting nonprofit that is working under contract with the state to help nursing homes respond more effectively to the coronavirus, has been getting questions from nursing homes about testing, spokesperson Laurie Menyo said. “An important thing to keep in mind is that universal testing is neither a requirement nor a recommendation," she said. "It is a strategy.”

Whatever the state’s intentions are, the testing push comes far too late, operators say.

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Jeff Petty, chief executive of Wesley Enhanced Living, a nonprofit that operates six long-term-care facilities for seniors in Southeastern Pennsylvania, warned that universal testing is not a sure-fire solution because of delays in getting test results, false readings, and other problems with the tests.

Assuming that those problems could be overcome, more testing in nursing homes “might have lessened the impact locally if aggressively implemented in early April,” Petty said.