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Louisiana gets tougher with nursing homes over virus testing

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Posted at 8:29 PM, Jun 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-19 21:29:43-04

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana has toughened its coronavirus testing requirements for nursing homes, with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration telling the facilities they must regularly test residents and workers for COVID-19 or face financial penalties from the state.

The bolstering of protections for the state’s most vulnerable to the virus outbreak comes after some Louisiana nursing homes didn’t follow earlier voluntary testing standards recommended by the state Department of Health. Several facilities refused to provide any information about their testing plans — or if they had them — to the agency.

Under the new regulations, nursing homes will have to complete a first, baseline test of each resident and employee by June 30, or face the risk of restrictions on admitting new patients, civil penalties or withholding of Medicaid payments.

Nursing homes account for more than 40% of Louisiana’s deaths from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. Louisiana fell short of its goal to test all nursing home residents and workers by the end of May.

“We’ve worked every day with the nursing home folks to make sure that they test and make sure that they isolate,” said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state health officer. “We got through most of the nursing homes, and we had a few left that weren’t quite there."

About 79% of Louisiana’s 23,445 nursing home residents have been tested for COVID-19, according to the health department’s letter to nursing home administrators Wednesday advising them of the new requirements. Only 62% of the workers at the 278 facilities — those who are coming and going from the nursing home and could bring the virus in with them — have received COVID-19 tests, the agency said.

Nearly two dozen nursing homes, the department said, either don’t have plans to test everyone on site, or they aren’t sharing information about their testing plans with the state.

But the problems are broader.

Guidry said about one-third of nursing homes don’t meet the requirements set out by the state that call for regular, repeated testing.

“I think that’s going to change now that we sent this letter out,” he said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended testing every resident and employee at nursing homes and regularly following up with additional testing to keep track of any virus spread. Louisiana is offering testing kits and lab analysis to nursing homes, and is going in to help with the swabbing if needed.

In addition to the June 30 requirement for a completed first testing round, the regulations require weekly testing of employees and residents whose results came back negative. Testing reports have to be submitted.

If a resident refuses a test, the health department requires that person be isolated until no new virus cases have been identified onsite for 14 days. The agency warns that workers refusing a test put “residents and the employer at risk if they continue to work at the facility,” without explicitly calling for the workers to be fired.

Edwards expects the nursing homes will comply.

“The vast majority of them did what we were asking of them a long time ago, and now we’re taking this final step,” the Democratic governor said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t expect — or want — to have to use any Medicaid sanctions.”

Mark Berger, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association, said in a statement that the organization worked with the health department to formulate the testing plan and “fully supports” the requirements.

For most people, the highly contagious coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. But for some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and be life-threatening.

The state revised its COVID-19 data Friday, saying it found more than 1,600 previously confirmed cases were either duplicates or out-of-state residents who shouldn’t have been counted in Louisiana’s totals. Revised figures show more than 48,500 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Louisiana residents, and 2,972 people have died. The state says more than 37,000 people have recovered.

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