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State House committee hears details on nursing home outbreaks

By Liz Moomey

liz.moomey@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY —Most of the county’s and the state’s COVID-19 deaths are from congregate living facilities like nursing homes, and the N.C. House’s Health Care Working Group on Thursday heard a plan to prevent more outbreaks at skilled nursing and assisted living facilities across the state.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, outlined the state’s plan to support nursing homes. The state will distribute 1 million sets of personal protective equipment to more than 3,000 facilities, including skilled nursing facilities, adult care homes and group homes.

DHHS also plans to expand testing.

“They’re also creating additional guidance on testing of all staff and residents periodically regardless of outbreak status,” Cohen said. “What we’re learning is that the virus is moving around even when we don’t know it and people aren’t having symptoms.”

Cohen admitted COVID-19 is tricky. With the flu, a person could have the virus and not be physically sick but spreading it for 12 to 14 hours. With COVID-19, a person could have the virus without showing symptoms for up to six days. Some never show symptoms.

“I’m still trying to wrap my own head around as a medical person: how the virus can go undetected in some people that they don’t have any symptoms and others it can be so severe that it ends them up on a ventilator potentially even taking their life,” Cohen said. “It is crazy how different this virus is for different people.”

A representative questioned if there was a link between nursing home outbreaks and health violations. Matt Gross, assistant secretary for government affairs with NC DHHS, said he hasn’t seen a connection statewide.

He added the department has seen the virus move through asymptomatic spread at nursing homes.

“Getting more PPE is going to be really critical from preventing further spread in nursing homes and other adult care settings,” Gross said.

The representatives heard from Frances Messer, the North Carolina Assisted Living Association President and CEO, assisted living leaders across the state.

Messer told the representative they need prioritization of rapid testing for their communities and their staff.

Marc Maready, chief operating officer of Ridge Care, admitted COVID-19 testing won’t solve all of the problems at assisted living facilities but will help.

“We do believe broad based testing could provide at least a baseline for exposures and give us quantifiable metrics and communicate to the general public that assisted living is a safe, affordable solution for seniors and that we’re open for business at a time when at risk seniors need us the most,” he said.

Maready said because of COVID-19 assisted living facilities have shifted from vibrant communities, providing purpose and meaning for residents, to “pandemic prisons.” Instead of residents spending the sunset of their lives surrounded by family members and engaging with other residents, they have been relegated to meals in their rooms and FaceTime replaced quality time, Maready said.

“The saddest part is much of this could have been avoided,” he said. “Well intended but misguided one-size fits all policies from Raleigh has hamstrung, responsible proactive care providers from being able to make decisions about how to keep their residents safe based on data and actual on the ground decisions.”

To recapture public confidence at the assisted living facilities, people will need extensive, across-the-board testing in all skilled nursing and assisted living facilities and to be able to rapidly test residents and team members who are suspected of being infected, he said.

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