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CMS Administrator Seema Verma Talks Testing In Nursing Homes

Seema Verma stands for photo
Stephanie Colombini
The Florida Channel
CMS Administrator Seema Verma talked about the federal government's efforts to put rapid coronavirus testing machines in nursing homes.

The federal government is continuing to deploy rapid coronavirus testing machines to nursing homes around the country.

But providers say they're left to secure their own test kits after the initial supply runs out, which is posing problems.

They're also worried the antigen tests the machines conduct are more likely to produce false negatives than molecular tests, with some health experts recommending people who test negative get an additional test to verify the results.

Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini talked about the testing initiative with Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Verma was in Clearwater on Thursday meeting with nursing home directors.

Why does the federal government believe this is an important thing to do?

This effort around testing is going to let our nursing homes across the country do rapid tests, so within 15 minutes, they can test their staff and they can test residents if they need to. And this is very, very critical in terms of being able to control the virus inside the nursing home and identify those asymptomatic staff that may be bringing the virus inadvertently into the nursing home.

RELATED: Nursing Home Leaders Raise Testing, Workforce Concerns To CMS Administrator

And we've also coupled it with a requirement to do this testing routinely. So if they're in an area of the country where there's not that many cases, it's once a month, but some of the areas of the country where we know there are hotspots, we're saying you need to do that testing at least twice a week. That way we know that we can keep our nursing home residents safe.

We've heard some concerns from long-term care providers about whether they will have enough supplies after the machines arrive to be able to continue doing these tests frequently. Also concerns about having to test certain people a second time because of the accuracy of producing false negatives with the antigen test.

Are you worried that the machines won't get used as much as you're hoping And what can the government do to help these facilities make good use of them?

Well, the FDA, the CDC and CMS, all agencies have agreed that these antigen tests are exactly the most appropriate test in the nursing homes. This is going to allow them to do a lot of tests in a very short period of time.

If there is an outbreak, or there's, you know, significant cases, they may do some follow-up tests. But this is the best tool that we have that's available to identify those cases. So it starts with giving them the testing machines, and then it's also the supplies.

I can tell you at the federal level, we can see where all the test kits are. And we've made very clear that we want to make sure that nursing homes are prioritized and that they have the test kits that they need.

One of the things that we did is we stood up a brand new reporting system for nursing homes, so they are actually in communication with us on a weekly basis. We can see what their supply needs are. And then we've provided almost $10 billion in funding for these nursing homes.

You mentioned the importance of catching asymptomatic staff because we know someone could have COVID-19 and feel perfectly fine. There's been confusing messaging from test manufacturers, government leaders, the CDC recently, about who should be tested, whether it's symptomatic people only or everybody. How should testing be conducted to protect the most vulnerable?

In nursing homes, we've been very clear every staff member needs to be tested on a routine basis. This is surveillance testing, and testing asymptomatic individuals in nursing homes has been our policy.

That being said, if you're not working in a nursing home, the guidelines have said, you know, if you don't have any symptoms and you haven't been exposed to the virus, or you haven't been in a situation where you think that you may have the virus, you probably don't need to be tested.

Withvisitation resuming in Florida, and we don't have a testing requirement for that, how can facilities keep asymptomatic people from bringing that infection in then?

Testing is part of an overall strategy to keeping nursing homes free of the COVID virus. So there's also screening. We want to make sure that if visitors are coming in, they're [staff are] screening, and then when they come in, we still have to make sure that we are socially distant, that we're wearing masks.

We're going to be encouraging outdoor visitation because that also reduces the spread of the virus. And if there is indoor visitation, thinking about what other precautions we need to put in place. Things like plexiglass, limiting the amount of visitors, making sure that there's cleaning in between.

So our focus is on making sure that we are not only keeping nursing home residents safe from the COVID virus, but we're also addressing their quality of life, and we know that having visitors and being able to interact with their family and friends is critical to their quality of life.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.