Groups raise concerns over testing at CT nursing homes

Governor Ned Lamont speaks at a news conference outside of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven on July 7, 2020 announcing the Partnership Loan Program for minority and women-owned business in New Haven and the Lower Naugatuck Valley.

Three legal aid organizations are urging the governor to rescind a portion of an executive order exempting nursing home workers from being tested on a weekly basis, and the chief executive of several Connecticut nursing homes has raised concerns about state funding for testing running out.

“Frequent testing is critical to preventing a resurgence of COVID-19 in nursing homes,” said a letter sent last week and signed by representatives of Connecticut Legal Services, the New Haven Legal Assistance Association and Greater Hartford Legal Aid.

An executive order signed by Lamont on June 17, which remains in place, allows nursing homes and other long term care facilities to stop testing staff if “testing identifies no new cases of COVID-19 among residents or staff over at least 14 days since the most recent positive result.”

Lamont’s office and a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health did not return Hearst Connecticut Media’s request for comment.

The disease has claimed the lives of some 3,216 residents and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the state, or is suspected to have contributed to their deaths, data released July 2 by the state shows.

Statewide, health officials reported five new deaths attributed to COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the death toll from the virus in Connecticut to 4,343. Seventy-five new infections were reported, for a total of 47,108 COVID-19 cases.

The new positive cases represent 1 percent of the 7,335 tests conducted in the last 24 hours, the state numbers show.

Paul Liistro, managing partner of three nursing homes in Manchester and Vernon, also raised concerns about state funding for the testing, which he said expires at the end of August.

Liistro, who sent a separate letter last month to Deidre Gifford, acting commissioner of the state health department, told Hearst Connecticut Media that what homes don’t know is whether a staff member without symptoms could start “shedding and spreading” the virus in a home that pauses testing after those 14 days.

“The virus has attacked us with biology, chemistry and physics,” Liistro wrote in a letter to DPH. “We are fighting back with poor execution.”

In the letter he criticized the state’s slow rollout of COVID-only nursing homes and universal testing of residents and staff members.

The legal aid organizations are asking Lamont to replace the June 17 order with an earlier one mandating weekly testing of long term care staff for the duration of the public health emergency, claiming the exemption for testing goes against guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from mid-June.

But Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, said Lamont’s current executive order does follow guidelines from the CDC.

“It is important to note the governor’s weekly staff testing mandate still stands,” Barrett said, pointing out that testing must resume at a home if there’s evidence of a new infection.

Liistro said nursing homes are concerned about a resurgence of the virus amid flu season, and that the latest executive order from the governor does not allow for state funding of nursing home testing past Aug. 31.

Asking homes to absorb the cost of testing, which previously ran his company $100 per test, would be unsustainable, Liistro said, on top of financial strains the homes are already facing.

“The business is really built around high census, it’s almost like airlines,” he said. “If we don’t have most of the beds full, we’re doing very poorly.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal called for greater federal assistance for homes, including helping homes obtain supplies of personal protective equipment needed to prevent the spread of the disease.

“There is no question whatsoever that the ongoing costs of weekly testing will be crushing and destabilizing for Connecticut nursing homes,” said Barrett.

He said the state should commit to funding testing at nursing homes beyond Aug. 31, including homes that continue to test weekly outside of the CDC guidelines out of an abundance of caution.

Lamont’s office announced Tuesday the hiring of a New Jersey firm to conduct an independent review of what led to the thousands of deaths at long term care facilities in the state.

Mathematica Policy Research, headquartered in Princeton, N.J., will conduct an “independent, third-party review” of the response to COVID-19 by the nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Lamont’s office said the company will be paid around $450,000 for the work.

“What I can tell you is it’s a firm that’s really focused on nursing homes. They can tell us best practices from around the country, and they bring in expertise that we didn’t have in-house,” Lamont said in Hartford Wednesday.

“And I wanted to make darn sure that if there is another flare-up, we’re even better prepared than we were back in April,” the governor added.

Staff writer Ken Dixon contributed to this report.

Connecticut Media Group