Richmond Times-Dispatch: Testing, protective gear top list as Northam nursing home task force prepares to meet

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

The need for more COVID-19 testing and protective gear will be at the top of the agenda for the first meeting of a new task force Gov. Ralph Northam created to help nursing homes and other long-term care facilities battle the spread of the coronavirus through their medically vulnerable population.

The task force is scheduled to meet by conference call on Thursday morning in the midst of crisis, with a national milestone for COVID-19 deaths at one Henrico County skilled nursing facility and the coronavirus spreading through other long-term care facilities throughout the Richmond region and state.

Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center has experienced the deadliest COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, with 46 deaths through Wednesday.

The Virginia Health Care Association, representing almost 300 nursing homes and almost 100 assisted living facilities, says expanded availability of tests is essential to identify the virus’s presence and contain its spread.

“The amount of tests that are available” is “just not there yet,” said Keith Hare, president and CEO of the association based in Richmond. “At this point right now, we know we’re not able to meet the test demand.”

Long-term care facilities also say they don’t have enough personal protective equipment — such as medical-grade face masks and gowns — to safely care for patients and separate those who test positive for COVID-19 from those who have not.

Staffing is another pressing issue for the task force, as long-term care facilities attempt to maintain staffing ratios at the same time that employees become infected with the virus.

However, Hare credited Northam for assisting facilities throughout Virginia with staffing by boosting the Medicaid reimbursement it pays for eligible residents by $20 a day per person.

“The funding the governor is providing is going to allow our members to increase the pay of their caregivers, who are working tons of overtime right now,” he said.

Dr. Laurie Forlano, state deputy commissioner of population health, will lead the task force with an urgent mission to control the coronavirus outbreaks that are driving cases and deaths from the virus in Virginia.

“The nursing homes are kind of ground zero in the spread of this virus,” said Clark Mercer, the governor’s chief of staff.

Help for long-term care facilities also is high on the agenda of Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, whose district includes Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center and other nursing facilities struggling to contain the virus.

“I had suggested the creation of a task force in order to coordinate efforts to share best practices … to manage this type of crisis,” Spanberger said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

Spanberger and other members of Virginia’s congressional delegation from both political parties have pushed President Donald Trump’s administration for additional aid, especially for long-term care facilities.

She and Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-5th, asked the administration to use the Defense Production Act to require industries to help produce protective gear on the same day that Trump invoked the act. However, Spanberger remains concerned about what she called the administration’s “hesitancy” to use the law.

Spanberger, Riggleman and two other members of the state’s delegation — Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, and Morgan Griffith, R-9th — asked the administration last week to dedicate at least $25 billion of a new $2.2 trillion stimulus package to nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

This week, she and four other House Democrats — including Reps. Gerry Connolly, D-11th, and Don Beyer, D-8th — asked the inspector general for health and human services to investigate what they contend is the mismanagement of the Strategic National Stockpile and failure to help states with critical medical supplies.

“There are a lot of reasons to ask questions,” she said.

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