IPC practices often collide with facilities’ role as a home, especially to those receiving long-term care. “We always have to measure what we do [to prevent and control infections] against patient autonomy and residents’ rights,” said Dr. Gaur. “We have struggled with these issues, prior to the pandemic. If patients are positive for multidrug resistant organisms [for instance], how long can they be isolated in their own rooms? You can’t for days and months put someone in a single room and create isolation. That’s where the science of infection prevention can collide with residents’ rights.”
Over the years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged this discordance, leaving it to facilities to decide, for instance, whether to actively screen for colonization with MDROs. In 2019, to help nursing homes prevent the transmission of MDROs from residents who are colonized but not actively infected, the CDC introduced new “enhanced barrier precautions” that require the use of gowns and gloves for specific resident activities identified as having a high risk of MDRO transmission. The new category of precautions is less restrictive than traditional contact precautions, which keep residents in their rooms.
Infection control in nursing homes “isn’t where it needs to be ... but we’re always going to have in nursing homes a situation where there’s a high potential for rapid transmission of infectious disease,” said, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who chairs the long-term care special interest group of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America and has offered COVID-19 advice to his state’s department of public health.
“Anytime you have a congregative community, particularly one that involves susceptible hosts, there will be an intrinsically susceptible environment ... I’m a bit disturbed by the emphasis on saying, ‘This nursing home had a COVID-19 outbreak, therefore this nursing home did something wrong,’ ” Dr. Crnich said.
“How we mitigate the size of the outbreaks is where we need to focus our attention,” he said. The goal with SARS-CoV-2, he said, is to recognize its introduction “as rapidly as possible” and stop its spread through empiric symptom- and exposure-based isolation, multiple waves of targeted testing, widespread use of contact and droplet precautions, and isolating staff as necessary.
As awareness grew this year among long-term care leaders that relying too heavily on symptom-based strategies may not be effective to prevent introduction and transmission of SARS-CoV-2, a study published in April in thecemented the need for a testing strategy not limited to symptomatic individuals.
The study documented that more than half of residents in a nursing home who had positive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results were asymptomatic at the time of testing, and that most went on to develop symptoms. The study was conducted after one case of COVID-19 had been identified.
Some states issued calls this spring for “universal testing” of all nursing home patients and staff, and the CMS recommendations issued to state and local officials in mid-May for phased nursing home “reopening” call for baseline testing of all residents and staff, followed by retesting all residents weekly until all residents test negative and by retesting all staff continuing every week.
However, the experts contacted for this story said that, without a highly accurate and accessible point-of-care test (and even with one, considering the virus’ incubation period), a universal approach that includes all nursing home residents may have more limited value than is being touted. In many scenarios, they said, it is most meaningful to focus still-limited testing supplies on the staff, many of whom work at more than one facility and are believed to be primary vectors of SARS-CoV-2.
Dr. Ouslander, Dr. Wasserman and other long-term care leaders have been discussing testing at length, trying to reach consensus on best policies. “I don’t think there’s any uniform approach or uniform agreement,” said Dr. Ouslander. “For me, under ideal circumstances what needs to be done to protect older people in nursing homes is to get access to as many accurate viral tests as possible and test staff at least once a week or every 10 days.”
In some facilities, there may be an unspoken barrier to the frequent testing of staff: Fear that staff who test positive will need to be quarantined, with no one to take their place on the front line. Dr. Ouslander said he knows of one county health department that has discouraged nursing homes from testing asymptomatic staff. “It’s insane and truly shocking,” he said.
At the University of Rochester Medical Center, Dr. Dumyati said, staffing agencies are running short of nurse aide substitutes, and staffing issues have become the “biggest challenge” facing a regional multidisciplinary group of medical directors, hospital leaders, and health department officials who are working to troubleshoot COVID-19 issues. “Some of our nursing homes have ended up sending some of their residents to other nursing homes or to the hospital [because of the loss of staff],” she said.
Currently in the state of New York, she noted, COVID-19 patients may not be discharged to nursing homes until they test negative for the virus through PCR testing. “And some people don’t clear by PCR for 4-6 weeks.”