A worker at Geer Village Senior Community in Canaan wasn’t feeling well while at home.
She went out to get tested on her own, stayed out of work, and ultimately tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 12. The company said the worker’s last negative test was roughly a week prior. But by then, it was apparently too late. After that staffer’s test came back positive, the first resident tested positive for coronavirus four days later. By Wednesday of this week, 41 people at the assisted living facility had been infected.
Since September, nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Connecticut have only had to test their workers once a month. That’s according to state regulations. But monthly tests mean employees can go weeks without getting checked.
Which leaves this question: Is testing in a facility just once a month enough?
“Would weekly testing all the time be helpful? Yeah, I think it would,” said Kevin O’Connell, CEO for Geer Village Senior Community. “But I don’t know how realistic it is. For instance, now, I have to get over 300 employees on campus over the course of one day — three, four hours — and get them all tested.”
Geer Village’s outbreak came in the days before state officials announced they were embarking on a major shift to testing policy at nursing homes and assisted living facilities across Connecticut.
As of Nov. 1, the state is mandating that all facilities test staff weekly — again. It’s a policy shift that brings Connecticut back to a testing strategy that was originally put forward in late spring.
Where Testing Has Been, And Where It Is (Returning To) Today
Since early September, testing for nursing homes and assisted living facility staff was tightened. State public health officials said on Sept. 1 that they wanted it to happen at least once a month.
To make the testing happen over the summer and fall, nursing homes have worked with “care partners” — contractors who coordinate testing. They show up, swab employees and send the samples to a lab for results. Then it’s on to the next home.
O’Connell said care partners are good at standardizing sample collection, but he said there must be a better way.
“If I was to arrange this, each facility would have its own testing machine,” he said. “If you go to the doctor’s office, they have machines that can test for the flu. Ideally, that would be the way to do it, we’d have our own machine. We’d test our own staff and immediately get answers. But we’re just not there yet.”
Today, it can still take days for employees to get results. A reality that was apparent, O’Connell said, months ago.
“Early on … the goal was to get the results back in 24 hours,” he said. “But it was very difficult to do. There was such a high volume of people getting tested … that you really could not.”
Meanwhile, O’Connell said the nature of 24/7 care operations meant employees had to keep working while the tests were pending.
“Everybody has to continue working until you get your test results back,” he said.
And now, as of Nov. 1, there’s that new change mandating weekly tests. But while the state is ordering more frequent testing, the governor’s chief operating officer said frequency isn’t the only variable.
“Even if you’re testing every day, you could still have someone come to work who is asymptomatic and positive. And not know it,” Josh Geballe said. “That’s why mask wearing and infection control procedures are so critical to prevent the spread.”
Though he suggested masks were important, Geballe declined to say if the outbreak at Geer Village was related to PPE.
O’Connell says it wasn’t.
“I believe all of our staff are adhering to the proper infection control protocols. Using good infection control practices, wearing their PPE,” O’Connell said.
Over the last two weeks, other outbreaks have occurred, including a recent one at Avon Health Center. Since the spring, more than two-thirds of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have been residents of nursing homes or assisted living facilities. And short of locking down every employee — something O’Connell says is “just not possible” — he said he doesn’t see any immediate solution as the weather gets colder.
“My attitude is, I think we’re doing the best we can,” O’Connell said. “I think Connecticut has been better off than most of the country, at least, at this point.”