VIRGINIA — More than a month into the coronavirus crisis, long-term care facilities across the nation are still struggling to keep up with the demand for coronavirus tests. Because of a national shortage in testing supplies, Virginia health officials continue to recommend that long-term care facilities wait until a resident or staff member shows symptoms of the coronavirus before testing them, even if a resident or staff member at the facility has tested positive.
The insufficient testing capabilility is making residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities and memory care facilities even more vulnerable to the coronavirus. In many jurisdictions in Virginia and other states, large percentages of deaths from the coronavirus are often connected with long-term care facilities.
At one facility near Richmond — the Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Henrico County — dozens of people have died from the coronavirus. Other assisted living facilities and memory care units across Virginia also are experiencing outbreaks of the coronavirus.
At a virtual town hall hosted by ABC7 on Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam addressed concerns about the shortage of testing supplies at long-term care facilities. “We are doing everything that we can to make sure that there is adequate testing at our nursing homes, not only for the residents but also for the staff,” Northam said.
As of Wednesday, out of the 108 outbreaks of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, in Virginia, 60 have occurred at nursing homes and long-term care facilities, according to the Virginia Department of Health. These facilities have reported 644 positive cases of the coronavirus.
At Arbor Terrace Fairfax, a memory care facility in Chantilly, two residents have tested positive for the coronavirus. In compliance with guidelines issued by the Virginia Department of Health, Arbor Terrace notified the Fairfax County Health Department about the two residents who tested positive. The long-term care facility also contacted family members to inform them that two residents had tested positive.
“As of today, we have been made aware of two residents who have tested positive for COVID-19. One resident lives in the Bridges neighborhood and one lives in the Discovery neighborhood. No other residents or staff members have tested positive,” Arbor Terrace President Judd Harper said Monday in a letter to families. Arbor Terrace has different areas — or neighborhoods — at its facility where residents live depending on the level of care they need.
Lorraine Peck, a Fairfax County resident, has a 94-year-old aunt who lives at Arbor Terrace. “I am very concerned and feel the facility — both residents and staff — are bound to start getting ill,” Peck said in an email to Patch.
Peck appreciates the regular communications sent to family members by Arbor Terrace staff and said the memory care facility “has been proactive in dealing with the virus and protecting residences and staff.”
She is hoping the Northam administration will be able to do more to expand the testing for coronavirus at Arbor Terrace. On Monday, Peck wrote a letter to two members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors asking for help with her aunt and the other people at the facility.
“We are all aware that once covid-19 is in a facility it is going to spread. Governor Northam referred to the Canterbury Nursing Home dealing with one of the largest concentrations of deaths in a long-term care facility in our country,” Peck wrote in the letter to Fairfax County Supervisors Dalia Palchik, who represents the Providence District where Peck lives, and Kathy Smith, who represents the Sully District where the Arbor Terrace facility is located. Peck provided Patch with a copy of the letter she sent to the board members.
Arbor Terrace said it has been taking precautions to protect its residents and staff, actions that align with CDC, Virginia and Fairfax County guidelines. “Unfortunately, despite these efforts, including the unwavering commitment of our staff, two of our residents have tested positive,” the facility said Tuesday in an email to Patch.
On March 11, the facility switched to an essential personnel-only visiting policy. It then stopped accepting new residents on March 19. Arbor Terrace began a full quarantine on March 29, asking all residents to remain in their apartments. The facility continues to have enough personal protective equipment on hand. Its staff are trained on the appropriate use, removal and replacement of the equipment.
Despite the large number of positive cases and deaths at long-term care facilities, the Virginia Department of Health has so far recommended that the facilities conduct coronavirus tests only if residents or staffers begin to show symptoms of respiratory illness. “For the time being, public health testing is done on symptomatic persons only and not on all staff and residents,” a Fairfax County Public Health Department spokesman said in an email to Patch.
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If there is a positive coronavirus case in a resident or staff member at a long-term care facility, the Fairfax County Health Department does not recommend testing residents and staff members. Instead, the department says on its website that it will investigate and work with the facility to prevent or limit further spread of infection.
The Fairfax County Health Department could not comment specifically on the Arbor Terrace facility. But the department spokesman said it “takes the same approach to any facility for which we know there is a case of COVID-19, which includes offering to send a team to provide education and recommendations on PPE use, infection control measures, isolation and quarantine steps, and environmental disinfection.”
Last Friday, Northam announced the creation of a coronavirus task force for long-term care facilities. “Our long-term care facilities are home to people who are most vulnerable to this virus, which can be particularly hard on people who are older or who have other health conditions. Every person in assisted living and long-term care is someone’s parent or loved one. It is vital that we protect them,” Northam said.
The governor assigned Dr. Laurie Forlano, the Virginia Department of Health’s deputy commissioner for public health, to lead the task force, with the goal of containing the spread of the coronavirus among long-term care facilities, including finding ways to improve the facilities’ coronavirus testing capability.
“This includes making sure our nursing homes have the testing, the PPE and the cleaning supplies they need,” Northam said last Friday at a press briefing. “[Dr. Forlano] will make sure Virginia’s long-term care facilities continue to be a priority.”
At the governor’s coronavirus press briefing on Monday, Forlano said the task force was able to work with the University of Virginia to provide testing supplies to an unidentified long-term care facility in the state. The Northam administration learned of the coronavirus outbreak at the long-term care facility over the weekend.
“The University of Virginia has offered testing kits and testing capacity to ensure that the facility has enough testing,” Forlano said.
On Tuesday, Dr. Jonathan Shenk, medical director for Accordius Health Harrisonburg, said the nursing home is where a coronavirus outbreak is being investigated in the city. Shenk told WHSV that the first resident was tested last Thursday and so far, four patients have tested positive. He said 97 people were being tested as of Tuesday afternoon and 60 patients were showing COVID-19 like symptoms.
In Virginia, roughly 44,200 people had been tested by 5 p.m. Tuesday, with 6,500 positive cases. On Wednesday, the state reported 195 deaths from the coronavirus. The total number of people who have tested positive likely represents a fraction of the people with the virus as officials throughout the country have expressed frustration over the inability to test enough people.
By immediately testing residents and staff members after a resident tests positive, any of the staff members who test positive could immediately be taken off duty but continued to be paid. And the facility could provide more secure and protective equipment to staff when taking care of any residents who test posistive.
Peck is worried the coronavirus could spread among asymptomatic carriers inside a long-term care facility like where her aunt lives if more widespread testing is not done. She is pushing policymakers to take measures that could help to avoid any repeats of what happened at the nursing home in Henrico County.
“I do not want Arbor Terrace to suffer that fate. I do not want my Aunt to suffer that fate,” Peck wrote in her letter.
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