In the wake of statistics showing that fully half of Maryland’s coronavirus deaths have occurred at nursing homes, Governor Larry Hogan today ordered the universal testing of residents and staff for the virus.
Nursing and assisted living homes, which together house 100,000 Maryland residents and employ over 19,000 workers, are experiencing widespread outbreaks of the highly contagious virus.
Last night, the Maryland Department of Health revealed the number of cases that had previously been hidden from the public because of reported privacy concerns.
The data showed that 463 of the state’s total of 929 Covid-related deaths involved nursing home residents or staff, with over 4,300 Covid-positive cases.
The actual number of cases at nursing homes is believed to be much higher because the vast majority of homes have not tested residents and staff who have not displayed symptoms of the disease.
Hogan today ordered nursing homes to test all residents and staff, which many medical experts say is the only way to make sure that asymptomatic carriers do not inadvertently spread the disease among elderly residents who are especially vulnerable to the virus.
Hogan said the state’s 226 nursing homes must now have a doctor, nurse practitioner, doctor’s assistant or registered nurse on hand to evaluate residents on a daily basis.
They are further ordered to provide “regular informational updates” to residents, resident representatives and staff regarding Covid-19 infections and to develop “surge plans” for proper staffing in case of an outbreak.
The state surgeon of the Maryland National Guard has been tasked as emergency safety and compliance officer for nursing homes
The vast majority of Maryland’s nursing homes are privately-owned “for profit” businesses, and nearly two-thirds are part of nursing home chains.
The Brew has written extensively about the lack of communication and secrecy by FutureCare, the region’s largest chain, in providing information about the medical status of residents to their families.
Today Hogan said, “It is heart-wrenching enough when families can’t visit their loved ones [due to stay-at-home restrictions]. But it’s even worse when they can’t get information about what is happening inside the facilities.”
Overworked and Underprotected
Employees say that, with chronic staff shortages, they are required to work long hours under difficult conditions.
Some have walked out of FutureCare centers because they were not issued protective gear; others say they have to literally cover themselves with plastic garbage bags in order to feel safe.
Apparently alluding to these reports today, Hogan said, “We are increasingly concerned and quite frankly outraged that a few operators are not complying with directives from the state,” such as requiring staff to wear masks, gowns and other protective gear (PPE) while working.
To ensure compliance, Hogan appointed Army Col. Eric Allely, state surgeon of the Maryland National Guard, to direct a multi-agency team to enforce the Covid-19 safety protocols issued in early April to nursing home operators.
Persons who “willfully violate” these protocols are subject to fines of up to $5,000, a year in prison, or both.
Calls for Testing
Leaders of three groups representing the nursing home industry had recently asked the governor to use some of the 500,000 test kits he obtained from South Korea to allow nursing home to screen staff and residents for Covid-19.
In Monday’s Brew, contributor David Plymyer cited California’s plan to start routine testing of all nursing home residents and called on Hogan to do the same, noting that testing is the best way to protect elderly citizens in the absence of a vaccine, which is considered to be 18 months away from becoming widely available.
To confidentially reach a reporter: