Rebecca Moss/Spotlight PA
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HARRISBURG — The Wolf administration on Tuesday afternoon will unveil details of a plan to conduct weekly testing of staff and residents in the state’s hundreds of long-term care facilities, which have become the epicenter of coronavirus-related deaths in Pennsylvania.
The announcement is a reversal for the administration, which for weeks has said it has done everything possible to protect nursing homes and maintained that only people with symptoms should be tested, despite the known spread of the disease from carriers with no signs of illness.
In recent weeks, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the type of widespread testing lawmakers and long-term care advocates were requesting was unrealistic, both because of a lack of supplies and the inaccuracy of tests.
“It is not clear universal testing is the answer,” Levine told the Senate last Thursday..
But Tuesday morning, Gov. Tom Wolf told reporters the state would implement a “fairly radical” plan to conduct surveillance testing “once a week for everybody — employees and patients and clients” — by relying on a state laboratory in Exton. “In some cases, the long-term care facility will have to rely on the testing being actually done by part of the private sector,” he said.
The state now wants to do more both in terms of testing and in supplying personal protective equipment, Wolf said.
The reversal comes after a Spotlight PA investigation published Saturday found the state had a robust and aggressive plan to protect nursing homes from the coronavirus, but never fully implemented it, and has since resisted calls to take the kind of action the administration is now proposing. Other states committed to widespread testing at nursing home facilities weeks ago.
In late April, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered universal coronavirus testing at nursing homes, including all staff and residents, regardless of whether they had symptoms. The governor also mandated a daily evaluation of all residents. Massachusetts, West Virginia, and Tennessee have also prioritized testing.
Over the weekend, New York state followed suit, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing nursing home staff would be tested twice each week. New Jersey officials said Tuesday that all long-term care residents and staff will be tested for the virus by the end of May.
As of Tuesday, Pennsylvania reported 12,130 cases of COVID-19 inside 540 long-term care facilities. More than 2,600 residents have died.
In late April, Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) asked Levine why every person at long-term care facilities was not being tested, despite the widespread understanding of how vulnerable residents and staff are at these homes.
Levine at the time said it would be virtually impossible to conduct widespread testing on a daily or even weekly basis for all staff, saying there were insufficient supplies and too high a rate of false results. A more viable testing solution would be at least six months off, she said then.
“Right now, testing everyone who walks in the building every day, we really can’t do that,” she said.