Gov. Mike DeWine announced Thursday afternoon a statewide testing initiative for Ohio’s more than 765 assisted living facilities, which will mean baseline saliva testing of all staff and residents at no cost to the facilities.
This point-in-time testing initiative was praised by an industry group, but it also said there’s still a ways to go before facilities have the regular testing needed to reduce the risk of outbreaks.
Saliva tests can be self-performed or performed with assistance, under the observance of licensed medical staff. Baseline saliva tests are not “rapid tests” and need to be analyzed at a laboratory, but provide reliable results in about 48 hours upon the lab’s receipt.
“Our focus has been and remains on protecting Ohioans while navigating this pandemic. To achieve this, we must have 100% participation of all assisted living facilities across Ohio. Therefore, an order will be issued soon requiring all facilities to participate,” DeWine said.
A baseline test in assisted living is critical to begin to better understand the spread of COVID-19 in these congregate settings, which serve an extremely vulnerable population, said Patrick Schwartz, spokesman for LeadingAge Ohio, which represents nonprofit long-term care providers such as nursing homes and assisted living centers.
“It is important to remember that this test is simply a snapshot in time; a more strategic, long-term testing program is still the ultimate goal,” Schwartz said.
Older adults who live in senior living communities have been over represented among the hospitalized and the dead during the pandemic. There have been 2,195 long-term care residents in Ohio who died since April 15 from the coronavirus, the earliest date when long-term care deaths from COVID-19 were recorded.
The virus can enter the facilities undetected through workers who don’t feel sick, can spread quickly through people living in close quarters, and can create serious complications for older people with multiple underlying medical conditions.
Nursing home and assisted living facilities have been clamoring for more federal funds for personal protective equipment, sufficient testing supplies and rapid result tests, and other additional costs incurred trying to keep residents and staff safe.
Schwartz said the current state effort to test Ohio nursing homes every two weeks has had some delays based on lab capacity and the first round took about four weeks.
Meanwhile, visitors can now see loved ones in nursing homes under limited conditions. But as the coronavirus still widespread and with strapped resources, local facilities have been mixed in whether they are comfortable restarting visits.
In Ohio, outdoor visits were allowed to start June 8 for assisted living and homes for those with developmental disabilities, and outdoor visits were allowed to start July 20. Both allowances came with state safety mandates such as staying six feet apart and temperature screenings.
Chip Wilkins, long-term care ombudsman for multiple counties in southwest Ohio who advocates for residents’ rights in nursing homes, said his office still receives calls every day from families with with loved ones in homes that have been hesitant to restart visits even under these conditions.
Wilkins said some of the facility leaders are very nervous about safety in the current situation. It also takes time and manpower to schedule and oversee the visiting process and screenings. Wilkins said his team has been urging places to consider that residents have both physical and mental health needs that need met.
“Meeting with family is vital to both physical and mental health,” he said.
As of 2019, there were about 72,000 nursing homes residents in Ohio. When the coronavirus started to spread in March, the state quickly banned visitors from these communities but that also has left thousands of older Ohioans separated from family that used to visit for hours or even all day.
Ohio is also nearing the reopening of adult day care centers and senior centers, which may open at a reduced capacity beginning on September 21 if the facilities can meet certain safety standards outlined in a forthcoming health order.
“Each center should consider a variety of factors when determining its ability to reopen, including the case status in the surrounding community,” DeWine said.