Aggressive, reliable testing a must

Johnson City Press • May 3, 2020 at 12:00 PM

Families of nursing home residents surely were concerned in recent weeks when four area facilities reported positive novel coronavirus test results among employees and patients.

Relief likely followed when those same nursing homes reported that retesting of those same patients produced negative results. Were the original tests false positives? If so, why?

Given the implications COVID-19 has for vulnerable populations, especially older people residing in common facilities, answers are a must.

The Northeast Regional Health Office is investigating. Dr. David Kirschke, office’s director, says the tests were processed by an out-of-state lab that the health department is “not very familiar with,” but the lab used a normally reliable and widely used method of testing. The retests were conducted by a state lab.

None of the people who originally tested positive was symptomatic, but the Regional Health Office wisely continued to act as if all had the virus out of caution for other residents and employees in the homes.

The nursing homes initiated the facility-wide tests for the same reasons. The state of Tennessee had not yet required such tests, despite large outbreaks at homes across the country and in Tennessee. In late March and early April, 44 COVID-19 cases emerged at a single facility in Cookeville.

The local nursing home situation was developing at the same time the state experienced a spike in cases, largely because of those at two prisons — nearly 600 at one and more than 1,300 at another.

Like schools, both nursing homes and prisons are densely populated places. People are in close quarters 24 hours each day, seven days each week. The arrival of one infected person could have sweeping implications in either setting.

Tennessee was aggressive enough to shutter school buildings in mid-March, a decision that undoubtedly helped limit the virus’ spread. Shutting down all nursing care facilities and prisons was not an easy option.

There was, however, plenty of reason early in the pandemic for the state to aggressively test both confined populations for COVID-19. That did not happen. Such testing should have been a primary objective.

On Wednesday, a month after the nursing home situation in Cookeville, Gov. Bill Lee announced that the state would coordinate COVID-19 testing in the more than 700 nursing care facilities across Tennessee. And on Thursday, he made a similar announcement regarding the state’s 14 prisons.

Lessons are emerging left and right from the COVID-19 crisis. Two come to mind here. Amid such a pandemic, the state should coordinate all testing to ensure standardization and reliability. Secondly, populations residing in close quarters should be first on the list.