Nursing homes only test people with coronavirus symptoms. Should they test everyone?

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By Kate Irby, McClatchy’s, May 20 2020

Turlock Nursing and Rehabilitation In Turlock, Calif., on Saturday, April 25, 2020. PATTY GUERRA PGUERRA@MODBEE.COM


A California lawmaker whose district includes a nursing home that saw a deadly coronavirus outbreak is proposing a bill that compel more COVID-19 testing in assisted living facilities regardless of whether a resident is showing symptoms of the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have told nursing homes they should be constantly screening residents and staff for symptoms of the novel coronavirus, and test them if they have any symptoms.

Given data that shows nursing homes have had a high portion of deaths related to COVID-19, Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, is calling for nursing homes to test all residents, a potentially costly endeavor he argues must be done.

One nursing home in Harder’s district, the Turlock Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, has reported 18 coronavirus deaths as of Wednesday and more than 100 positive cases.

“Nursing homes are the epicenter of this pandemic — residents are at higher risk because of their age, preexisting conditions, and their close proximity — we have to prioritize testing at these facilities,” Harder said in a statement.“The federal response has been terrible. (The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services) has been asleep at the wheel and seniors across the country have paid the ultimate price as a result. We need to care for our most vulnerable, and that starts with testing.”

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services is a federal agency that can regulate nursing home practices. Harder has criticized the agency as slow to act. For example, a commission it is forming to evaluate nursing homes’ responses to coronavirus and give further guidance just started calling for nominations on May 14, and Harder has called on it to get a commission together and active more quickly.

Harder’s bill calls on the Department of Health and Human Services to contract with private test producers to provide the necessary number of tests to nursing homes nationwide. The government would front the cost of testing, not the nursing homes themselves.

Harder’s office said it’s unclear how much that would cost. The Congressional Budget Office determines the cost of bills, but it can take weeks after a bill is introduced to get a number.

The bill doesn’t mandate how frequently nursing homes should test staff or residents — its main point is to remove the requirement of symptoms in order for them to receive a test. Data has shown a large number of people who contract COVID-19 have no symptoms but can still spread it to others.

California’s most recent data shows that there have been 874 reported deaths in nursing homes due to coronavirus, just more than a quarter of the 3,334 reported deaths so far in the state. But only 56 percent of California nursing homes have reported their data to the state so far, meaning those numbers could be significantly higher.

Nursing homes will be required to disclose data on coronavirus infections and deaths to the CDC by the end of May or face fines.