In Policy Shift, State Health Officials Will Test Nursing Home Staff More Often | Connecticut Public Radio

In Policy Shift, State Health Officials Will Test Nursing Home Staff More Often

Aug 28, 2020

State public health officials said they’ll work to more aggressively test staff at nursing homes for COVID-19. But officials in the eldercare industry said Friday they’re still waiting for formal guidance on those changes from the state Department of Public Health. 

Previously, Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order on testing nursing home staff said a facility could stop coronavirus testing if it was COVID-19-free for 14 days. 

Critics, including a coalition of legal aid groups representing nursing home residents and their families, said stopping staff testing under any circumstances could lead to further outbreaks.

On Thursday, Deidre Gifford, acting commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, said the state always reserved the right to increase staff testing in response to localized outbreaks, like a recent COVID-19 spike in Danbury. 

“We have changed our recommendations for Danbury to have every staff member tested every week,” Gifford said. 

But up until recently, the state hadn’t signaled it would change the governor’s broader executive order that allows some nursing homes to stop testing staff for coronavirus. 

Gifford said the state now will embark on a new, more aggressive testing program.

“We are also going to be implementing a surveillance testing strategy, where a quarter -- one-quarter -- of the staff are tested every week,” Gifford said. “So it won’t be every staff member every week, but every staff member at least once a month will be tested going forward.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Health said Friday that the department expects to release a guidance document on the issue soon but was unclear about exactly when the changes would take effect.

Advocates said the move was a positive step, but they want the DPH to do more to protect nursing home residents and workers.

“We are encouraged that DPH now takes the position that testing must continue, even after 14 days of no infection in a facility,” said Sara Parker McKernan, a policy advocate with New Haven Legal Assistance, which opposed Lamont’s executive order allowing staff testing to stop. 

“Testing monthly may be appropriate as long as the community transmission rate is low,” she said.

But McKernan said in an email that she wants Lamont’s executive order on nursing home testing modified to tie the frequency of staff testing to community infection rates. 

“Clearly asymptomatic staff in nursing facilities who go back into the community after their shifts place residents and other staff at risk, especially if they are going into areas displaying high positivity rates,” McKernan said. 

In an emailed statement, the state’s two major nursing home associations, the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities and LeadingAge Connecticut, said Gifford’s announcement Thursday “will ensure continuous COVID-19 testing of nursing home staff.”

But Mag Morelli, president of LeadingAge Connecticut, which represents not-for-profit nursing homes across the state, said Friday she’s not yet aware of the state releasing any formal guidance on the changes.

Jesse Martin, a vice president at union SEIU 1199, which represents around 7,000 nursing home workers in the state, said he also hasn’t seen anything in writing.

“I’m encouraged by the new language,” Martin said, “but until I see the new guidance and the new executive order, nothing’s changed.”