Several members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging on Thursday called for COVID-19 testing for all nursing home residents and staff in the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 15,000 people in long-term care facilities.
Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D.-Ariz., wrote a letter to Seema Verma, administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, urging her to consider, among other issues, how long-term care facilities and home care settings can access adequate testing and personal protective equipment.
"Consider how the federal government, in collaboration with states and local communities, might support testing capacity and policies to ensure that appropriate testing takes place at LTC facilities and during transitions of care," Collins and Sinema wrote in the letter.
Collins said at the hearing that she has been recommending universal testing for all residents and employees of nursing homes.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., noted that she and several other lawmakers have launched an investigation into whether assisted living facilities are adequately tracking coronavirus infections and taking sufficient preventive measures.
R. Tamara Konetzka, a professor of health services research at the University of Chicago, told the committee that all nursing home residents should be tested regularly for COVID-19.
Konetzka said nursing home residents and staff are estimated to make up at least one-third of all COVID-19 deaths in the United States. She said all nursing home residents need to be tested, not just the ones with symptoms, because people who do not yet show symptoms can spread the novel coronavirus.
"Given the close proximity and the fact that staff go from resident to resident every day, the virus -- until people get symptomatic -- can spread throughout the facility," she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at least 15,119 long-term care facility residents have died from COVID-19. Other estimates put the death toll for nursing home residents and staff up to 28,000.
The legislation by Blumenthal and Booker would require nursing home residents to be tested every week and nursing home employees to be tested before each shift. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D.-Ill., introduced a companion bill in the House on May 5. It was referred to the ways and means, and energy and commerce committees. The House bill says that if a nursing home does not have enough testing kits, it should screen all employees and residents for COVID-19 symptoms and report that it is lacking testing kits.
Sen. Tim Scott, R.-S.C., said caregivers at nursing homes are disproportionately minorities. He said that African Americans, which make up 27 percent of the population in South Carolina, account for 53 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
"So you have one vulnerable community being served by another vulnerable community, and that only highlights the importance of testing, testing, testing in our nursing home facilities," he said.
Scott wrote to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in late April requesting "rapid point-of-care testing capacity" at long-term care facilities and urged that communities of color have greater access to testing, according to a press release.