West Virginia was the first state to mandate comprehensive testing. Test results in nursing homes in West Virginia show about 30 percent of facilities in the state have at least one positive case among residents and/or staff.
Even with widespread testing complete, patient advocates say nursing homes will continue to need support and oversight to protect one of West Virginia’s most vulnerable populations.
Because of older age and pre-existing health conditions, nursing home residents are at high risk for serious illness from COVID-19. To stop further spread of the disease, nursing homes have restricted visitors and eliminated group activities among residents.
The state is beginning to ease social distancing restrictions and reopen businesses, but where nursing homes are concerned, the state’s long-term care ombudsman Suzanne Messenger says this is no time to relax.
“It’s important not to let our guard down, not to take our foot off the gas, to make sure that those facilities are prioritized for PPE, for testing,” said Messenger. She went onto say, “as we make policies restricting visitations or other things to protect the people who live there that we remember that these are not just positive or negatives or beds, they’re actually a person.”
Normally, Messenger and regional representatives are inside long-term care facilities and addressing complaints the office receives from residents, families or staff. But they are currently restricted from entering nursing homes. Still Messenger said about 70 complaints have been filed since mid-March.
Messenger says that’s not an above average amount, but some complaints are specific to the impacts from the pandemic. For example, she’s responded to complaints about residents who were hospitalized, then couldn’t get access to a coronavirus test and therefore were not allowed to return to their facility.
“Most of those complaints, we have been able to resolve one way or another. Testing has become more available, still not perfect, but it’s become more available,” said Messenger.
Messenger said her office also received a couple of anonymous complaints from staff about the availability of personal protective equipment. She said the availability of PPE is better now, but it’s not where it needs to be.
“We have received new shipments and new methods, but a lot of facilities are trying to implement measures to try to extend the use of PPE in accordance with the federal guidelines because of a fear of shortages,” said Marty Wright, CEO of the West Virginia Healthcare Association, a trade group that represents more than a hundred nursing homes in West Virginia.
Meanwhile, nationwide, nursing homes’ operations have been under more scrutiny as residents and staff die by the thousands. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in mid-March that nearly 40 percent of nursing homes in the country had at least one infection control deficiency in 2017.
Toby Edelman is a senior policy attorney with the national non-profit Center for Medicare Advocacy. She says infection control problems in nursing homes preceded this pandemic.
“If they had been doing a better job in infection prevention and control there still would have been a problem,” said Edelman. “But it would not have been the terrible problem that we’re seeing now with so many residents dying.”
Edelman said widespread testing in nursing homes is necessary to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. In this case, West Virginia found itself as a leader when statewide testing of all nursing home residents and staff was ordered on April 17th.
“This is a model. This is what has to be done everywhere,” Edelman thought when she heard this news.
Now other states have followed suit.
According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources 32 people have died from coronavirus in nursing homes. More than 330 residents and staff have been infected.
There's no word from the state on whether widespread testing in nursing homes will be repeated, but testing in assisted living facilities is underway.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.