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Pennsylvania Health Secretary Defends 'Universal' Nursing Home Testing Plan

Dozens have died of COVID-19 at the Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Brighton Township, Pa., pictured on May 12. Pennsylvania's health secretary defended the state's plan to test every resident and staffer at every nursing home.
Gene J. Puskar
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Of the 4,624 people who have already died of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania, at least two-thirds of them were associated with nursing homes or other long-term care facilities.

Last week Pennsylvania's health department said it's "executing a robust universal testing strategy" for the more than 80,000 residents and 10,000 staffers at 1,900-plus facilities.

But in the week since the announcement, some long-term care facilities have been left confused and saying they haven't been given enough guidance. SpotlightPA reported on some weaknesses in the current guidance: that it calls for voluntary compliance; recommends full testing only at facilities with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases; and excludes long-term care facilities that aren't nursing homes.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine responded to criticism of the plan, telling NPR's Morning Edition: "The plan is an evolution, and we're going to be working with each facility to make sure that the testing gets accomplished."

Here are selected excerpts from the interview:

When do you think you'll be able to say, "All right, we have at least once tested every person in a long-term care facility and every employee in a long-term care facility." How far out are we looking?

It'll probably take at least several weeks or a month to test everyone in those facilities, and we are rolling that out as we speak. Because a viral test is not conclusive, for if you're negative on one day, you could be positive several days later, all of the facilities will need to have a regular schedule in terms of their testing. But that schedule will need to be individualized. But as you've pointed out, this is quite a project. And so we're working all of that out now and we'll make sure that it gets accomplished.

Does the state of Pennsylvania right now assume that if every long-term care facility, every nursing home resident and employee was to ask for a test today, could you get everyone a test today?

No, not in one day. First of all, that would challenge our testing capacity. And it would be logistically almost impossible to accomplish. But it has been really challenging to get the testing capacity available. There have been challenges in terms of getting the reagents and the chemicals and even the swabs and the viral media to be able to do that. But in collaboration with the federal government, after a number of different phone calls and a lot of work, our state laboratory has much more capacity. But also hospital laboratories have more capacity and the commercial laboratories have more capacity.

Listen to the full interview here .

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James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.