Pa. Nursing Home Residents Among Those To Be Tested For COVID-19 NPR's Noel King talks to Pennsylvania's health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine about statewide testing in long-term care facilities and nursing homes in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Pa. Nursing Home Residents Among Those To Be Tested For COVID-19

Pa. Nursing Home Residents Among Those To Be Tested For COVID-19

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NPR's Noel King talks to Pennsylvania's health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine about statewide testing in long-term care facilities and nursing homes in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.


Pennsylvania plans to test every resident and every employee in all long-term care facilities, like nursing homes, for coronavirus. COVID-19 has killed more than 4,500 people in Pennsylvania, and about 70% of those deaths were linked to these facilities. I talked yesterday to Dr. Rachel Levine. She's Pennsylvania's health secretary. And I asked her, how many people are you going to need to test?

RACHEL LEVINE: I don't have an exact number, but we plan to test everyone in those facilities. There are over 1,900 of those facilities in Pennsylvania, and so testing all of the residents and all of the staffs will be a significant project, but that's what we're going to do in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to those vulnerable individuals.

KING: Does it surprise you that - it surprises me a little bit - that you don't even have a sort of round number of how many people you're promising to test?

LEVINE: Well, there's, again, up to 2,000 facilities. Some of them are quite large; some of them are quite small. So I don't have that number at my fingertips. But we're going to be working in a phased, iterative fashion to test those facilities. Right now out of that between 1,900 and 2,000, there are 561 facilities that have cases. And so we want to be able to test everyone because one of the significant factors we found in terms of bringing cases into the facility are asymptomatic individuals. By testing them, we will be able to diagnose if they have COVID-19, to have them isolate and thereby increase the protection to the facility as a whole.

KING: This was announced six days ago. How many people have been tested in long-term care facilities or who work in long-term care facilities?

LEVINE: Well, so we have - had, actually, started this in a pilot fashion about two weeks ago. We are working to roll that - this out last week. Actually, some of the facilities have already taken it upon themselves to do it. So we're collecting all of that information now, and eventually, we'll be able to put that on a dashboard.

KING: I think it might be the eventually that would make people nervous. It doesn't sound like you have a very firm plan in place. It is one thing and an admirable thing to say, we plan to test everyone; we plan to test them with some frequency. It is another thing, though, to actually do it. When do you think you'll be able to say, all right, we have at least once tested every person in a long-term care facility and every employee in a long-term care facility? How far out are we looking?

LEVINE: Sure. It'll probably take at least several weeks or a month to test everyone in those facilities, and we are rolling that out as we speak. Because a viral test is not conclusive or if you're negative on one day, you could be positive several days later, all of the facilities will need to have a regular schedule in terms of their testing, but that schedule will need to be individualized. But as you've pointed out, this is a - quite a project. And so, you know, we're working all of that out now, and we'll make sure that it gets accomplished.

KING: You said you don't know how many people, ultimately, we're talking about. Does the state of Pennsylvania right now assume that if every long-term care facility, every nursing home, resident and employee was to ask for a test today, could you get everyone a test today?

LEVINE: No, not in one day. First of all, that would challenge our testing capacity. And it would be, logistically, you know, almost impossible to accomplish. But, you know, it has been really challenging to get the testing capacity available. There have been challenges in terms of getting the reagents and the chemicals and even the swabs and the viral media to be able to do that. But in collaboration with the federal government, after a number of different phone calls and a lot of work, our state laboratory has much more capacity, but also hospital laboratories have more capacity, and the virtual laboratories have more capacity.

KING: Dr. Levine, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on May 14 that there's been some messiness to this process. They quoted at least one nursing home that said they're just confused as to how this is going to work, and they sort of got the runaround. Why is there so much confusion at this point?

LEVINE: Confusion wouldn't be the word that I would use, but I would say that the plan is an evolution. And we're going to be working with each facility to make sure that the testing gets accomplished. But we have outlined the scope of it, which is a challenge, but we're going to work through that with each facility to make sure that it gets done and then that it's repeated on a regular basis, with the timing done on an individual decision with each facility.

KING: Dr. Rachel Levine is the health secretary for the state of Pennsylvania. Dr. Levine, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

LEVINE: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

KING: After the interview, a member of Dr. Levine's staff did get us some numbers. The state will need to test more than 80,000 residents and 10,000 employees.

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