Virginia nursing homes get supplies from FEMA as COVID-19 containment efforts shift to long-term care

By: - May 6, 2020 6:53 pm

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Nearly 300 nursing homes across Virginia are scheduled to receive a seven-day supply of personal protective equipment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Facilities aren’t likely to get a heads-up before their shipment arrives, according to a presentation from the governor’s COVID-19 Long-Term Care Task Force (assembled in mid-April to address a growing number of outbreaks among some of the state’s most vulnerable residents). But the supplies are scheduled to begin arriving this week and continue through the middle of June.

A total of 284 Medicaid and Medicare-certified nursing homes will receive a supply of surgical masks, eye coverings, gloves, and gowns, said Dr. Laurie Forlano, head of the task force and deputy commissioner of population health for the Virginia Department of Health. The total number depends on the number of staff working in the facility.

LeadingAge Virginia, an association of nonprofit senior living centers, was “delighted” to learn the news on May 4, legislative counsel Dana Parsons wrote in an email on Wednesday.

It comes amid continuing concern over COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes, both across the country and in Virginia, where long-term care facilities account for a significant portion of the state’s coronavirus cases and more than half its recorded deaths.

That’s led to growing calls to allocate more resources toward nursing homes, where residents frequently have coexisting conditions that increase their susceptibility to the virus. “Really, we need a Marshall Plan-type effort in those facilities,” said Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, who chairs the House Health, Welfare and Institutions committee.

On Wednesday, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association also announced a partnership from the Virginia Department of Health to assist long-term care facilities in their efforts to contain the virus. Forlano said that many of the measures — including testing, staffing support and infection control training — were already being offered or discussed by VDH and local health departments.

But as part of the effort, VHHA and the state hired Russell Phillips and Associates, a third-party emergency management firm that provides “specialized services” and consulting to health care facilities, according to its website

It’s part of a growing statewide focus on long-term care facilities as it becomes increasingly clear they’re shouldering the brunt of a state and global pandemic.

“This is an evolving situation, and with each cycle there are going to be lessons learned and a more focused response and deployment of resources,” said Julian Walker, VHHA’s vice president of communications. “There have been efforts and discussions around long-term care facilities for weeks. But this is a more formalized response.”

It marks a shift away from the state’s early emphasis on hospitals — a point of concern since the beginning of the pandemic. Many of Gov. Ralph Northam’s earliest actions centered on boosting bed capacity, including plans to construct field hospital sites that have since been postponed.

But as COVID-19-related hospitalizations have stabilized and emergency room use has dramatically decreased, Northam has said hospitals are prepared to meet demand — even if there’s an increase in coronavirus cases. VHHA data shows that no hospitals are currently struggling to obtain or replenish personal protective equipment for medical workers. 

Facilities have also added more than 3,000 beds through an executive order to increase hospital capacity.

Many nursing homes, on the other hand, are still reporting shortages of personal protective equipment and concerns over the availability of testing. While VDH recently updated its testing guidelines to include a broad range of residents, three of the state’s assisted living associations — including LeadingAge Virginia — sent a letter to Northam on Wednesday requesting him to prioritize asymptomatic patients discharged from the hospital and readmitted into a long-term care facility.

“We are aware of situations of asymptomatic individuals discharged from hospitals and admitted to long term care facilities who test positive at a later date,” it reads. “While we understand the challenges associated with testing asymptomatic individuals, waiting for these residents to develop symptoms almost guarantees additional infections.”

Other nursing homes across the state have said local health departments continue to prioritize testing for symptomatic residents, rather than wider point prevalence surveys that allow all residents and staff members to be screened.

Forlano said Wednesday that the state has begun proactively offering to conduct point prevalence testing at facilities with confirmed infections, rather than waiting for requests. National Guard troops are also scheduled to assist with point prevalence surveys at nursing homes across the state, though they’ll likely be limited to performing two or three a day, said Michael Keatts — a regional emergency coordinator with VDH’s Office of Emergency Preparedness — during a media briefing on Wednesday.

“I think we’re trying to hit as many as we can,” Forlano added. “We’ve shifted our strategy to focus on reaching out to them, not the other way around.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.