New Pa. guidelines allow for families, others to provide in-person care at nursing homes

Dr. Rachel Levine, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, speaks during a press conference addressing the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Pennsylvania, inside PEMA headquarters on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

Pennsylvanians will soon be permitted to personally care for ailing loved ones in nursing homes, state officials announced Thursday, as the Department of Health published new COVID-19 guidance for long-term care facilities that also includes updated testing standards for residents and staff.

The new guidelines will allow what the state calls “compassionate caregivers” – oftentimes friends or family members – to visit nursing home residents if the caregiver has tested negative for COVID-19 in the last seven days, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said. 

Nursing home residents will be allowed to receive compassionate care visitors if staff say their condition is deteriorating.

“[Compassionate caregivers] play really a very important role in improving residents’ mental, emotional, and physical health care,” Levine told reporters during a briefing at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency headquarters in suburban Harrisburg. 

The new guidelines for Pennsylvania’s nursing homes, which are licensed and regulated by the Department of Health, come after the state completed universal testing in long-term care facilities to contain a series of deadly outbreaks.

The state issued the universal testing mandate in June and completed it more than eight weeks later, at the end of July. 

State data show that 21,149 residents and 4,534 staff in nursing and personal care homes have tested positive for COVID-19 since March, and that a cumulative 5,213 have died.  

Levine said Thursday that the state would order universal testing at specific facilities in the future in response to outbreaks. It would also continue to prioritize nursing home staff and residents for testing, and test them immediately if they develop symptoms, she said.

Statewide, nursing homes staff will undergo testing every four weeks at a minimum, even if they are asymptomatic. 

Testing among staff will be more frequent in counties that have moderate to high rates of community transmission based on the Department of Health’s COVID-19 data collection. 

Levine said the new guidelines hew closely to recommendations from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which sets quality standards for the nation’s long-term care facilities. 

COVID-19 testing declined slightly nationwide and in Pennsylvania in August, data from the COVID Tracking Project show. 

Levine said the new guidelines were not influenced by a shortage of testing materials, adding that nursing homes statewide would soon rely on new, rapid-turnaround antigen tests that have received federal approval this summer. 

All 693 nursing homes in the state will soon receive antigen test machines from the federal government to administer their own tests, Levine said. 

The antigen tests differ from the ones Pennsylvania has relied on since March, which detect COVID-19 through DNA sequencing and are considered the gold standard of diagnostic testing. 

But the new tests are still considered highly accurate, according to the Mayo Clinic, even though they may produce more false-negatives than other diagnostic tests.

“[This] will increase the ability for us to do more and more diagnostic testing,” Levine said. “They’re fast, they’re less expensive, and they’re easier to use.”