Oklahoma looking to implement ongoing coronavirus testing in nursing homes

Health experts and nursing home advocates say the only way to keep the coronavirus from spreading in long-term care facilities is through ongoing testing of residents and staff.

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Grace Skilled Nursing and Therapy in Norman. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier
About a month after officials started the process to test all nursing home residents and staff for the novel coronavirus, the Oklahoma State Department of Health has almost completed the first round of surveillance.

However, health experts and nursing home advocates say the only way to keep COVID-19 from spreading in long-term care facilities is through ongoing testing of residents and staff.

Donelle Harder, a spokeswoman for the  health department, said officials are looking to implement ongoing testing in nursing homes and will retest those that have reported new cases. The state will begin conversations with facilities on how the process will look after the first round of testing is done, she said in an email. 

So far, the state has tested more than 34,000 residents and staff members at 257 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, Harder said. Though Gov. Kevin Stitt had promised all testing would be done by May 31, the process will likely be finished over the next week, she said.

“OSDH will continue working aggressively to reach the remainder of the nursing homes over the next week, which will barely exceed our original goal to be complete by May 31,” Harder said in the email.

Because of the effort to test facilities, the health department’s testing load quadrupled in May, Harder said.

Facilities with known exposure to the disease that reported staff and residents experiencing symptoms have already been tested, she said. And hospitalized residents who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 are tested before they’re returned to homes.

As of Thursday, 169 people connected to nursing homes had died after becoming infected with COVID-19, according to the state health department. Staff and residents of the facilities make up about one in five of the state’s confirmed cases —the equivalent of 1,354 out of 6,270 cases as of Thursday. 

The coronavirus has coursed through U.S. nursing homes, which have vulnerable populations living in close quarters. Health experts and nursing home advocates say COVID-19 makes its way into facilities in two main ways: Through staff who may not know they are sick and by residents coming in from other care settings.

Letter from Senator Kay Floyd to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.

Following a Frontier analysis that found roughly half of the state’s coronavirus deaths stemmed from nursing homes and other elder care facilities, Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, penned a letter to Stitt on Friday urging him to present a plan to the state Legislature by the end of May on continued testing in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, as well as a plan to allow family visitation in the facilities to safely resume.

Floyd, on behalf of the Senate Democratic Caucus, also requested the governor provide an update by the end of May on how many nursing home staff and residents had been tested for COVID-19.

Nursing home advocates have told The Frontier that ongoing testing is vital to keep the disease from spreading within the facilities. Some expressed concerns that as the state’s social distancing measures ease, a growing number of employees will unknowingly bring the coronavirus into homes.

Out of more than 600 long-term care facilities in the state, COVID-19 had been found in about 90 as of Thursday, according to a report from the health department.

An executive order from Stitt restricting visitation to facilities expires at the end of May, but a news release from his office on Friday stated the measure would be in effect until Stitt signs a new order lifting the restriction. The release said there would be an exception for end-of-life situations.

Floyd asked the governor to “put forward a clear and workable plan to safely allow families to resume visitation of their loved ones who reside” in the facilities.

Harder said the Stitt administration is in the midst of conversations surrounding guidelines to allow visitations, particularly in facilities where there are no active cases.

Related reading: 

Oklahoma starts to reopen, as battle against the coronavirus in nursing homes mounts

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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