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Nursing homes get ready for total testing

Updated: May. 12, 2020 at 6:40 PM CDT
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GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - About a third of all the COVID-19 deaths in the United States have occurred in nursing homes.

To fight that trend, the White House has called for testing of every long-term care facility in the country in the next two weeks.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves is amending the state’s policy “to reach out and attempt to test in every long term care facility in our state whether they have an outbreak or not.”

That means testing in more than 200 long term facilities across the state with the goal of finding those residents or employees that are asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus. Nursing home directors do not think it will be an overwhelming task, and it could only help the state keep people alive.

“We’ve actually had that discussion with our COVID task force at memorial in looking at that possibility a couple of weeks back,” said Kyle Lewis, Director of Senior Care Memorial Hospital at Gulfport. “Anticipating that this may become not only something that is recommended, but possibly mandated by the state.”

In South Mississippi, long term care facilities in Pearl River County have had 42 positive coronavirus cases with seven deaths, and Jackson County has had 39 positives with four deaths. All other South Mississippi counties have been in single digits.

“First and foremost, the goal is to identify those asymptomatic carriers, get them out of the building so that they don’t have the potential to spread the infection,” Lewis said.

Nursing homes put no visitor policies in place early in the process, and that has been critical in limiting exposure at nursing homes. Making sure that employees don’t become carriers has been critical as well.

“We’ve done a lot of education with our staff about infection control to let them know we work with the elderly population, so we have to be smart about what we do on the outside when we’re with our families,” said Brandie Morace, administrator of Sunplex Subacute Center in Ocean Springs. “Because what we do there affects our residents when we come in.”

Regularly monitoring patients for symptoms as well as employees before they come into a facility is policy at both Sunplex and Memorial’s three facilities.

Morace said she felt like the testing might not be necessary because they have been so successful in keeping their facility infection-free with the preventative measures they have in place.

“I do understand the reasoning behind wanting to test everybody,” she said. " But I do feel like what we have in place has proven that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing-- trying to prevent it from coming in."

But even with a sweep of testing in a short period, operators agree that that only creates a snapshot in time, and they would need additional snapshots to know that they are still staying COVID-free.

“If we do put something in place, you’re going to want to do something that is consistent,” Lewis said. “If you test today, that doesn’t mean that tomorrow or the next day they won’t be positive. You want to put in a mechanism that you can continuously and routinely test those individuals. I know the state is working towards that. They will issue guidance on how they can support nursing homes in doing that.”

The testing would likely begin in those counties that have had the highest number of nursing home positive cases and positive cases in the general population.

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