The news release raised more questions than it answered.
On July 22, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced “new resources” to help nursing homes combat the ongoing spread of COVID-19. Between the announcement of an additional $5 billion in funding and plans to deliver rapid antigen tests to facilities, CMS made an unexpected declaration: All nursing homes in states with a percent positivity rate of 5 percent or higher would be required to conduct weekly testing of all staff members.
The announcement came as a jolt to many of Virginia’s facilities. Nursing homes were left scrambling for much of May and June after CMS passed down sweeping recommendations for weekly testing that many feared would cost millions of dollars to implement. In June, the Virginia Department of Health adapted them into state-specific guidelines, leaving weekly testing recommended but ultimately optional.
Now, the state’s beleaguered nursing homes — which have shouldered roughly 55 percent of Virginia’s total COVID-19 deaths as many continue to operate on tight margins — are again facing the prospect of a significant increase in operational costs. Virginia’s percent positivity rate (the percentage of total COVID-19 tests that return positive), has been hovering slightly above 7 percent since mid-July. Amy Hewett, vice president of strategy and communications for the Virginia Health Care Association-Virginia Association of Assisted Living, said it’s still unclear what source CMS will use to determine statewide percent positivity rates, and whether nursing homes will be subject to the requirement even if the rate is much lower in their individual county or locality.
“There are still a lot of questions that haven’t been answered,” she added. More than two weeks after the news release, CMS has yet to codify the announced requirements into a formal regulation or set a timeline for doing so (the agency has not yet responded to several follow-up questions from the Mercury). But Dr. Jim Wright, the medical director at Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Henrico, said he had no doubt they would eventually become a reality.
“We know it’s coming,” he added. “The federal government is sending machines to supposedly all of the nation’s nursing homes, and I don’t think they would do that unless they had plans of making weekly testing a requirement. So, it’s going to happen, unfortunately.”
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.