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Guest opinion: Utah should test all nursing home residents for coronavirus

Amber Rasmussen, a physician assistant who has been administering the COVID-19 tests to local patients prior to mobile testing and providing triage at Monument Valley Health Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, gets tested for COVID-19 outside center on Thursday, April 16, 2020.
Amber Rasmussen, a physician assistant who has been administering the COVID-19 tests to local patients prior to mobile testing and providing triage at Monument Valley Health Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, gets tested for COVID-19 outside center on Thursday, April 16, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Given the communal environment and population served, residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities are at increased risk of COVID-19 infection. According to The Associated Press and Wall Street Journal, at least 11,000 people in nursing homes or assisted living facilities have already lost their lives — roughly 1 in 5 COVID-related deaths. In Utah, however, roughly half of the 45 deaths from coronavirus reported as of April 30 have been in these care centers. This last week alone, five residents from one Salt Lake County retirement community died from the coronavirus and nine staffers also tested positive.

The outsized toll this disease has taken on residents of long-term care facilities makes it imperative that testing and personal protective equipment, or PPE, are prioritized for staff and residents, and more transparency is guaranteed when it comes to disclosing which facilities have positive cases.

Testing is the only way to be certain whether or not someone has COVID-19. It is important that both the staff and residents of Utah’s nursing homes and assisted living communities be tested for the coronavirus. This testing will help control the spread of the virus among residents and the community at large, while essential workers, emergency health care providers and on-site maintenance contractors continue coming and going from these facilities.

Our state currently has the capacity to test more people than the demand of those who are seeking out tests. Utah health officials, like state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, are encouraging the public to get tested for COVID-19, even if they only have one mild symptom, including a fever, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches and pains, a decreased sense of taste or smell, or a sore throat.

The increased capacity for testing in Utah comes even as other states are facing severe limits in their abilities to test. And Utah still has tested a larger portion of its population than most other states. Given the state’s capacity, every resident and staff member in a long-term care facility could be tested, regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms. By finding these cases early and regularly, those infected could be better isolated and receive care more quickly, and facilities could limit the spread among residents in the future.

When confirmed cases are identified, we urge the state to require that families of residents be notified and the names of nursing homes, assisted living communities and other residential care facilities with confirmed COVID-19 cases among residents or staff be publicly released.

Improved transparency is critical for public health, and the health and well-being of the residents and staff. Residents and family members deserve this information for their own health care decisions and as they consider possible next steps for their loved ones.

If nursing homes and other residential care facilities are limiting visitation, Utah should require specific communication workarounds. It is critical that family members be able to communicate with their loved ones. The workarounds might include processes for staff to facilitate phone calls, making video chat-enabled devices available to residents, and requiring more frequent facility communication with all families. The state should also address any barriers that could prevent the usage of such equipment.

A new nationwide poll from AARP finds that 9 in 10 Americans age 50 and older would strongly support or support additional federal action to assist nursing homes and other care facilities. The survey found that substantial majorities of older adults are in favor of legislation that Congress is considering: ensuring that health care workers get the personal protective equipment they need (99%); requiring nursing homes and care facilities to disclose the number of active coronavirus cases they have (96%); and requiring facilities to make video visitation available for residents and family members (96%).

Last month, AARP Utah expressed these concerns and recommendations to Gov. Herbert, Lt. Gov. Cox and legislative leadership. We will continue to call on these leaders to pass meaningful reforms this year.

Alan Ormsby is the AARP Utah state director.