ANNAPOLIS UPDATE: Gov. Larry Hogan ordered Wednesday all nursing home residents and staff to be tested for the coronavirus.
“I’ve issued an executive order requiring universal testing of all residents and staff at all Maryland nursing homes, regardless of whether they are symptomatic or not. Nursing homes will be prioritized based on an imminent outbreak or a current rising threat of an outbreak,” Hogan said Wednesday at a news conference at the State House in Annapolis.
The order comes after the state released data on the cases and deaths and calls for the governor to act immediately and after the Baltimore Post-Examiner published the story below this morning.
State lawmakers and advocates for Maryland nursing homes called this week for mandatory coronavirus testing for residents and staff after state health officials released statistics showing 50 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Maryland are from nursing homes.
As of Tuesday, 471 of Maryland’s 985 Covid-19-related deaths were nursing home related, according to data released by the Maryland Department of Health.
“It looks as though Maryland is still in a reactive posture instead of being proactive and preventative,” said Brian Lee, executive director of a national watchdog group Families for Better Care. “Sending strike teams to facilities to help them get over this crisis, it’s too little too late. By the time it’s infecting these homes, the virus has set a target on the back of these elderly folks with compromised immune systems and underlying health conditions. It’s rampant and moves at a very quick pace. … What’s so horrible is the fatality rate is horrendous.”
Sagepoint Senior Living Facilities in LaPlata topped the chart with 33 deaths, according to the state health department.
Lee said the state is halfway there.
“They have now released data,” Lee said. “The other half is the testing component. Unless there is universal mandated testing of all residents and all staff, we are never going to get ahead of this virus.”
Last week, W.Va. Gov. Jim Justice ordered testing for all nursing home staff and residents statewide. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan ordered tests for all city nursing homes and New Hampshire partnered with an urgent-care company so all nursing home care workers could be tested, according to the Associated Press.
State lawmakers call for mandatory testing
Maryland lawmakers are also speaking out.
Del. Brooke Lierman, who represents Baltimore City, one of the hardest-hit areas in the state, said nursing home residents are set in high-risk environments and there is no substitute for testing for COVID-19.
“We cannot stop working to acquire tests until every single Marylander can be tested and that effort should start by focusing on residents in high-risk situations or who are extremely vulnerable,” Lierman said. “Marylanders in nursing homes fit both those categories.”
Susan Liverman, who has a mother in Keswick Multi-Care Center in Baltimore City, said when a positive case was reported to her in mid-April on her mother’s floor, she asked if everyone in the unit would be tested.
Liverman said while she was relieved the positive patient had been moved to another area of the center and put in isolation, she was concerned about the contagious nature of the virus.
“What about staff? What about the other 16-to-18 residents on the floor?” she asked.
The answer was no.
“Staff said no because ‘we don’t have the capacity, we don’t have enough tests to be able to do that,'” Liverman said of her conversation with Keswick.
Liverman said she was told Keswick would only test someone if they show symptoms, and the rule applied to both residents and staff.
“I was upset because I felt they didn’t have everything they needed in order to properly fight this,” Liverman said.”If we’re going to focus on stopping these outbreaks in the nursing homes, then we need to be doing things the right way. If they don’t have tests to test people then you’re not doing things the right way.”
Liverman said she is very happy with the service provided to her mother at Keswick, and she doesn’t blame the facility for anything. Instead, she believes the system as a whole is flawed.
Asymptomatic persons are not required to be tested for the novel coronavirus, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. There is also a national shortage of testing kits, including in Maryland, which like all states, has been left to fend for itself during the coronavirus epidemic.
“What they don’t have is enough tests,” Liverman said. “If they’re being rationed and they’re saying we can only test someone if they have symptoms – well you’re behind the curve there. Especially if there is an outbreak.”
Keswick did reach out to the local health office for guidance once the outbreak started. It is a first step in seeking assistance from the state’s strike teams that were established by Gov. Larry Hogan Jr., in early April.
The strike teams deploy personnel from the Maryland National Guard, state and local health offices and medical professionals to provide assistance to nursing homes infected with the virus. The teams are designed to provide on-site mass testing with turnaround times between one-and-two days, to offer guidance for necessary equipment and supply needed for outbreaks, and to provide medical triage assistance and help with stabilizing residents.
Keswick representative Dana Cohen said the nursing home did not seek help from the state. Cohen said the local health officer sent an email after a meeting at the facility stating they were satisfied and impressed with how Keswick was handling its coronavirus cases.
To date, the facility has 11 positive coronavirus cases and two reported deaths.
“Keswick has not had any new cases since April 15, 2020,” Keswick spokeswoman Maria Darby said.
But some lawmakers would like Hogan to eliminate a nursing home’s right to refuse state help when coronavirus cases are present in a facility.
Del. Joseline Pena Melnyk, who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, said the governor’s strike team order should be mandatory and not optional.
She said in Prince George’s a nursing home would not allow a representative of the office of healthcare quality to enter the facility.
“The order that allows for strike teams does not make it mandatory to be allowed in,” Melnyk said. “The office of health care quality is saying it must be a cooperative effort with the nursing homes. The order has to be mandatory to have to teeth.”
Residents aged 60 and older make up 80 percent of all Maryland Covid-19 deaths.
When asked if the Hogan administration would consider making coronavirus testing mandatory at all Maryland nursing homes, spokesman Michael Ricci declined to comment Wednesday morning, citing an afternoon press briefing by Hogan.
“You’ll hear the announcements when the public hears them,” Ricci said.
Feature photo: Governor Larry Hogan’s press conference. Public Domain.
Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance journalist and award-winning investigative reporter with an eye for transparency and accountability in government and politics. Kazanjian’s reporting has triggered state investigations in police corruption, as well as changes to state policy in campaign finance and regulatory reform. During her 10-year freelance journey, she has also worked for cable television production companies like the Discovery Channel and Reelz providing true crime timelines for television series scripts.