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State issues order for widespread COVID-19 testing in nursing homes statewide

Bridget Parkhill, right, talks on the phone as she visits with her mother, Susan Hailey, center, who tested positive for the new coronavirus, Thursday, April 2, 2020, at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
Bridget Parkhill, right, talks on the phone as she visits with her mother, Susan Hailey, center, who tested positive for the new coronavirus, Thursday, April 2, 2020, at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that long-term care facilities statewide will have access to widespread testing for all their residents and staff in the coming weeks.

An order issued by the state Department of Health says that all consenting residents in nursing homes will be tested within two weeks. All consenting residents in memory care facilities also will be tested, within the next four weeks. And all staff at those facilities will be required to be tested for COVID-19, except those who provide medical justification from a licensed health care provider.

This is the first step toward rapid testing that Inslee has said is necessary to more swiftly reopen the state’s economy.

“A lot of people think it’s too early, and a lot of people think it’s too late,” Inslee said of the directive. “We make our best judgments.”  

Those judgments rely on day-to-day analysis of infection rates, hospitalizations and other public health metrics. About half the counties in the state have moved into Phase 2 of the governor’s so-called Safe Start plan, most recently Thurston County.

Inslee and health officials have stressed that in order to move more counties — especially populous ones — into Phase 2, the state would need widespread testing and contact tracing in order to quickly contain any outbreaks.

Thursday’s news conference also included a briefing on updated safety regulations for farmworkers across the state.

Erik Nicholson, with the United Farm Workers labor union, joined Inslee for the announcement. He said essential men and women working to put food on the tables of Washington residents are fearful every day.

“These regulations require that employers train workers on their rights,” Nicholson said. He added that the new “binding regulations” clear up any ambiguity about worker protections during this pandemic, and that employers must provide free, clean masks to everyone on the job.

Joel Sacks, director of the state Department of Labor and Industries, says his agency has worked on a massive outreach campaign to inform essential farmworkers of their rights.

“We want workers to know that we’re here for them,” he said during the news conference. “They can contact us if they have a safety concern, and want to file complaints.”

The new safety rules include a so-called “cohort model” for farmworker housing, which limits living quarters to 15 or fewer people. That ensures workers have more flexibility to follow social-distancing guidelines, officials said.

John Wiesman, Washington’s secretary of health, says the widespread testing in long-term care facilities will help public health officials check in with facilities that have yet to experience outbreaks, to potentially prevent them. And it will allow the state to get a better idea of the scope of asymptomatic carriers in those facilities.

Deb Murphy is president and CEO of LeadingAge Washington, a Tacoma-based nonprofit that advocates for improving the aging experience.

“This is a very positive and long overdue step forward,” Murphy said. “However, further work is needed to address staffing shortages and a number of other anticipated and unanticipated concerns that arise.”

More specifically, Murphy worries that, while the testing plan is achievable, the industry is concerned about the possible loss of staff who refuse to test.

“At this time, we’re uncertain as to how we should respond to staff refusals and whether that places the nursing home or assisted living memory care providers in any compliance jeopardy,” she said.  “Conceivably, if staff refuse to test we may be required to send them home for 14 days. Such a result, if it happens often enough, could exacerbate an already difficult staffing challenge given the statewide workforce shortage health care providers face.”

Ultimately, Inslee says the best way to protect the most vulnerable residents is to prevent the spread of infection outside nursing homes.

“Staff has to come and go,” Inslee said. “And the more infection is in the broader community, the more it can get into these long-term care facilities.”

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Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.