Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.
As deaths in long-term care facilities continue to swell, the Utah Department of Health plans to test workers at all such centers across the state, but will not proactively test the residents there.
Department spokesman Tom Hudachko said testers will begin going to Utah’s more than 300 long-term care facilities this week to screen any worker who has contact with residents. He said a triage plan is being devised to decide where testers go first.
“If we can stop it from being introduced among the staff," Hudachko said, "we can stop it from spreading among the residents.”
Testing all the workers would be a milestone in Utah’s efforts to curb the death count at nursing homes, assisted living centers and other types of long-term care facilities, though it still would fall short of what the White House called for on Monday.
Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the White House coronavirus task force, told governors on a videoconference that it’s the federal government’s strong recommendation that staffers and residents at nursing homes be tested over the next two weeks.
“We really believe that all 1 million nursing home residents need to be tested within next two weeks as well as the staff,” said Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force coordinator, according to a recording of the call obtained by The Associated Press.
Nursing homes and similar facilities have been the scenes of much of the COVID-19 carnage across the country. In Utah, 31 of the state’s 71 deaths have been attributed to such care centers.
At least nine residents of Highland Cove Retirement Community in Millcreek have died from COVID-19, according to the Utah Department of Health. A few miles north, in Salt Lake City, five residents of the memory support unit at The Ridge Foothill senior living center died, according to an update the facility posted on its website.
The state health department has not provided a full list of facilities that have had a positive coronavirus case or fatality.
Dr. Allyn Nakashima, manager for the department’s Healthcare-Associated Infections/Antibiotic Resistance program, said last week that most outbreaks at care centers happen when a worker infects patients. COVID-19 spreads more quickly and is more dangerous for senior citizens and people with underlying health conditions because their immune systems are weaker.
In Utah, most long-term care facilities began implementing measures in early or mid-March to prevent the spread. Visitors were banned. Common areas were closed, and staffers typically began wearing protective equipment around the residents.
Hudachko said residents with dementia or who are developmentally disabled pose the greatest challenges because they often aren’t capable of remaining in their rooms.
The health department has created strike teams that can deploy to long-term care facilities or other hot spots to test everyone when there’s an outbreak. But Hudachko said there’s no plan to proactively test residents at nursing homes or similar facilities because it would take too much personnel and too many tests.
“We want to look at putting our manpower and our resources where they can make the most difference," Hudachko said.
Jennifer Tarazon, associate state director for communications for AARP Utah, said her organization favors proactive testing of residents and employees in nursing homes and similar facilities. She noted state officials have said Utah has more testing capacity than what it is using and has already moved to boost testing among impacted communities such as Latinos and Pacific Islanders.
“Proactive testing is critical," Tarazon said, “to curb the infections and the deaths that are occurring at an alarming rate in our nursing and long-term care facilities."
More than 26,000 residents and staffers have died from outbreaks of the virus at U.S. nursing homes and long-term care facilities, according to an AP tally based on state and media reports. That amounts to about a third of the nation’s 80,000-plus coronavirus deaths.
Charlene Harrington, a professor emeritus of nursing at the University of California, San Francisco, said nursing homes should have been prioritized from the start, given their vulnerable populations and questioned why the White House testing recommendation is only happening now.
“We’re two months into it,” she told the AP. “If they had done that to begin with, we would’ve picked up cases early, and we wouldn’t have so many deaths.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.