Florida's nursing homes to get rapid COVID-19 testing

Nearly 70 percent of the state’s nursing homes will receive rapid test kits from the federal government in the coming weeks after being identified by regulators as having increased risks for COVID-19 infections.

President Donald Trump’s administration announced last month that it would send “point of care” COVID-19 test kits to nursing homes in viral hotspots and to facilities the federal government considered to be at an elevated risk for COVID-19 outbreaks.

Twenty-four Florida counties were included on the list of hotspots the government published. And of the 693  nursing homes in the state, 471 are included on the test-kit distribution list.

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“We estimate based on what we have seen, there will probably be over 400 facilities out of our 700 nursing homes that will receive those point of care devices,” state Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew said Thursday during a statewide phone call with health-care providers. “But they have not all yet all received those devices.”

It wasn’t clear Thursday how many facilities have received the testing equipment. The Agency for Health Care Administration referred questions about the numbers to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Florida Health Care Association spokeswoman Kristen Knapp said her nursing-home association conducted a preliminary survey of 85 facilities last week and received responses from half. Of the nursing homes that responded, just four said the test kits had arrived.

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State Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees said he had a call with representatives from the Quidel Corp., which is manufacturing the test kits that Rivkees expects to be delivered to Florida facilities. He called the point of care tests  “highly sensitive” but said they were not meant for everyone. Rivkees said the tests should be administered to symptomatic people and only those whose symptoms developed within the previous five days.

“When used within that five-day period, if somebody is symptomatic, if they test negative, you don’t have to do a follow-up,” Rivkees said, noting that the “sensitivity is excellent.”

The move to increase testing comes as Florida officials are considering whether to end a temporary ban on visitors at nursing homes. The ban has been in place for most of the pandemic and is aimed at preventing the spread of the disease.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced July 14 that it would distribute diagnostic test instruments and tests to 2,000 facilities, initially focusing on nursing homes in COVID-19 hotspots and facilities deemed to have an elevated risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma the following week announced the Trump administration wants to mandate weekly testing of nursing-home staff members and “visitors” in states with a minimum 5 percent COVID-19 positivity rate.  

Following the weekly testing, Verma said, the administration would recommend that visitation resume, so long as facilities are free of the virus for two weeks.

But such a testing mandate must be implemented through rule, which could take months.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, normally in agreement with Trump administration policies, questioned whether weekly testing is necessary. 

Florida has required nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, to test their staff members twice a month. It has entered into a contract with Curative to provide the testing kits, and the long-term care providers get the results within 24 hours, the governor said.

“I’m not sure that doing it every week would be something that necessarily adds a lot,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “It’s a tough thing logistically.”

Florida’s 24 hotspot counties are Baker, Broward, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Hardee, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Nassau, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Seminole, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Sumter and Volusia.