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Why testing is the best way to fight pandemic in nursing facilities

Coronavirus testing in care facilities is critical to protect seniors and caregivers.

Health Care Association of Michigan
Coronavirus testing is crucial for nursing facilities who care for some of society’s most vulnerable.

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan, one thing became clear – it was most unmerciful to our senior citizens.  A staggering 69% of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Michigan were individuals ages 70 and older.

The Health Care Association of Michigan (HCAM) member nursing facilities across the state are in a battle against COVID-19. The average resident in our nursing facilities is 82 years old, and our residents are often compromised with multiple medical complications. In Michigan and across the globe, we have seen the impact when the virus takes hold in these settings.

This data dictates that the fight against the virus must prioritize the protection of our residents in nursing facilities. At the onset of the pandemic, nursing facilities remained a low priority for personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing. Hindsight is 20/20. We now know that a robust response ensuring universal testing of nursing facility residents and staff, along with prioritizing these facilities in the allocation of PPE, could have saved lives.

Since asymptomatic and presymptomatic people may still be able to spread the coronavirus, testing is the only way to know for certain who is at risk.

Until recently, the lack of adequate and timely testing has forced providers to rely on a symptoms-based approach. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data shows, however, that asymptomatic and presymptomatic seniors and staff can unknowingly spread the virus.

We believe that the only effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in facilities is through universal testing of staff and residents. It is only through broader testing that facilities can isolate those infected and quickly determine where resources should be allocated to better protect both residents and caregivers. And while more testing likely means more positive cases in the near future, it will ultimately improve our ability to protect residents and limit the spread of the virus.

The state of Michigan is currently working on a strategy to establish a universal testing process for all nursing facility residents and staff. HCAM supports these efforts and has been working with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to implement a plan. Testing must be prioritized based on the level of COVID-19 infections in the community. From there we can determine which facilities are in need of test kits, PPE and clinical personnel to assist with testing. We must quickly establish not only a baseline for residents and staff, but more importantly instate critical periodic and ongoing testing to identify any new presence of the virus and isolate it to prevent transmission. 

A SKLD resident is monitored for coronavirus symptoms.

Testing helps arm facilities with the necessary information to stop the spread of this virus and better protect our residents and staff. The initiative by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to test every nursing facility resident in the city showed how effective universal testing can be. This is a template that should be used in nursing facilities statewide.

Testing is also the best option to allow our residents to visit with their loved ones in-person once again. Protocols to protect residents have included restricting visitors to facilities to avoid the potential spread of the virus. Such restrictions have proven difficult for residents, their families and staff.  We all want residents to have the opportunity to spend time with their families. For this to happen in a safe manner, adequate testing and PPE is essential.

No one created this pandemic or chose to have it come upon us. There is no blame, or scapegoats or finger pointing. Too many of Michigan’s seniors have paid the ultimate price in our fight against COVID-19. We can’t let this continue to happen. The time is now to prioritize our nursing facility residents. Our facilities must be a priority for testing, PPE and funding to pay for these supplies. These resources will not only help residents, but also the staff putting their own health and their families’ health at risk every day.

It is not too late to make an enormous difference in the outcome of the COVID-19 battle in Michigan’s nursing facilities. The best public health policy is to focus where the battle is taking place. Nursing facilities need help. Let’s not make the mistake of not prioritizing Michigan’s most vulnerable seniors.

For more information about the Health Care Association of Michigan, visit their Facebook page.

Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.
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