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Senators Call for More COVID-19 Testing, Virtual Visits in Nursing Homes

At AARP-sponsored virtual event, lawmakers and advocate outline ways to make residents, staff safer

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As nursing homes across the country continue to be ravaged by the coronavirus, two U.S. senators offered ideas Thursday for how to make the facilities safer and provide a better quality of life for residents. Their recommendations ranged from more frequent testing of workers to legislation that would provide the technology to allow residents to have virtual visits with their families.

Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) were part of an AARP-sponsored virtual event with Axios, an online news site. The event also featured Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer.

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According to the latest data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 35,000 residents in 7,700 long-term care facilities have succumbed to COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

"Nursing homes are full of people who fought in wars and worked in our factories and raised our children … and built the greatest country in the world,” Casey said. “The least that we could do is to make sure that we don't have a repetition of what has happened over the last several months where tens of thousands of people are dying in nursing homes."

Casey pointed to his repeated push for more disclosure of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes, something AARP also is seeking. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) now requires nursing homes to report all COVID cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as to continue reporting to local public health authorities. Residents and their families are also supposed to be notified. CMS has said this data will be made public by the end of May. So far CMS has not said exactly when and how it will begin disclosing such information.

Virtual visits encouraged

CMS also recently urged states to act very slowly to permit visits to resume in nursing homes, issuing some guidelines for facilities to follow once family members are allowed back in.

"We're in a circumstance where there's total separation,” Casey said, adding that he and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have introduced legislation that would provide the technology and the help that families need to be able to connect virtually with their loved ones.

"No one should be going through what nursing home residents and their families are going through today and we're hearing from thousands of our members about their heartbreak,” LeaMond said. She added that AARP understands that nursing homes need to limit the number of people going into their facilities during this pandemic. “But you don't want to cut people off from their loved ones,” she said.

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LeaMond said AARP is also concerned about the ability of residents and their families to hold nursing homes accountable for the care they provide. “There has been a little bit of a debate about whether immunity should be granted from liability for nursing homes,” she said. “We think they need to remain responsible for the health and safety of the residents."

Cassidy, who is a gastroenterologist, said he believes nursing homes have to do more testing than is now being recommended by the CDC, which recently said facilities should be testing their staff members weekly.

"I actually think that should be twice weekly,” Cassidy said. Someone who tests negative for the virus and has no symptoms one day may well be spreading the virus to others less than a week later without being symptomatic, he said: “We have to do our best to keep infection out of the nursing homes so that we can decrease the death rate to the benefit of the nursing homes, but also to the benefit of society."

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