Elders and schools to get long-sought rapid COVID tests

Florida nursing homes, assisted living facilities and elder communities will soon be able to conduct 15-minute, COVID-19 tests on staff, patients and even visitors each week as part of a long-awaited federal program, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday.

The governor last week said that the state would be getting 6.4 million of the Abbott BinaxNOW rapid tests after the federal government bought the company’s entire supply of 150 million. The weekly shipments will come in batches of 400,000.

On Tuesday, he said the state will distribute more than half of the weekly supply to homes for the state’s most vulnerable: 100,000 to long-term care facilities and 180,000 to other “senior care communities.” Of the remaining, 60,000 tests will go to state-run testing sites, and the other 60,000 tests will to school districts to screen “any student or teacher who developed symptoms and needs to be tested.”

For months, advocates for the state’s most vulnerable populations have pleaded for a testing strategy that would produce immediate results and allow caregivers the ability to know if pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic staff were exposing residents to the deadly infection.

Instead, the state relied on a porous and inconsistent plan that tested staff at nursing homes and ALFs every two weeks, then often waiting days before getting positive test results. The result was that although residents and staff at the nearly 4,000 long-term care facilities comprise 2% of the state’s population, they suffered 40% of the deaths from COVID-19.

The new tests kits are comprised of a cardboard packet the size of an index card. They require a nurse, or someone certified by the state, to swab both of a person’s nostrils, dip the swab in a reagent and wait for the results, which appear within 15 minutes.

About 800 nursing homes have already received the rapid tests, DeSantis said at a news conference in The Villages on Tuesday where he had a nurse demonstrate the procedure on a staff aide.

The state will distribute the tests to senior communities, such as apartment and condo complexes like Century Village in South Florida, Sun City Center in Tampa Bay and The Villages in Central Florida, upon request.

“We wanted to really focus it on our senior citizens because, as we know, there’s a radical, radical difference in the effects of COVID-19, based on age group and underlying health conditions,’’ DeSantis said.

“We believe that this will help give them more tools to be able to protect the residents who live there so we’re excited about this.”

Communities that want the tests should write to “[email protected],” DeSantis said. “You’ll get an automatic reply to lead you to a survey where you can fill out your community’s information, including a point of contact.”

The rapid test is one of two diagnostic tests for COVID-19 that indicate whether a person has an active coronavirus infection.

Detects viable virus

Molecular tests, such as PCR tests, detect the virus’ genetic material, but must be processed in a lab, which can take from a day to a week to get the results. Antigen tests, like the Abbott BinaxNOW product, detect specific proteins on the surface of the virus and yield results within 15 minutes.

A new study published Monday demonstrated that rapid tests can be a more accurate way to detect viable virus cells, while the more sensitive PCR frequently detects dead virus cells that are still in a person’s body, leading people to falsely assume they are still contagious.

For months, epidemiologists have urged the federal government to provide incentives for the development of rapid antigen tests and have welcomed the arrival of the Abbott test and others like it.

Michael Mina, an epidemiologist with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, however, said the development comes with a warning. “These tests should never serve as a substitute for masks and distancing,’’ he tweeted Tuesday. “Such an idea would be unsafe and remarkably not well thought out.”

Although visitors to state-licensed elder care homes are not required to prove they have tested negative before being allowed to visit under the state’s new visiting guidelines, DeSantis said he hopes the test will be used to make it easier for family members to visit loved ones who have been isolated for months.

“We’re mindful of how the isolation has played on so many,’’ he said. “Now that you have a 15-minute test, this can also help visitation in our long-term care facilities and so they’ll have the ability to do that, as they see fit.”

Jeff Johnson, state director of AARP of Florida said, “the heaviest burden of the pandemic is falling on our frail elders. Let’s hope these tests can help keep them and their communities safe.”

Questions remain

The Agency for Health Care Administration in September stopped requiring nursing homes and ALFs to test staff every two weeks, and any home that wants to continue the screenings must pay privately for them. The federal government requires only nursing homes to test their staff weekly.

Questions about the state’s testing plan remain, however. Will homes be allowed to use the instant tests to meet the federal requirement for staff testing? Will the state encourage homes to screen visitors to allow more family to see their lonely loved ones?

AHCA spokesperson Katie Strickland deferred to the Division of Emergency Management for answers, saying her agency has not established guidelines for who gets to use the instant tests. DEM spokesperson Jason Mahon did not respond to requests for comment.

Under the state rule, facilities can hold general visitation if they have had no new onset of COVID cases among residents or staff for 14 days. In the last two weeks, 3,001 out of 3,939 long-term care facilities reported no COVID cases, Strickland said.

DeSantis said he hopes schools use the test to eliminate the need to quarantine dozens of students when one student in a school tests positive.

If a sick student is either sent to school or becomes sick in school, “you take the student out — isolate them,’’ he said. “But then if you can get a 15-minute test, and you get the negative, then you don’t have to worry about isolating some of these other students.”

“What we found is, there have been students that have been forced to isolate who are healthy, and I think healthy quarantining is not effective,’’ he said. “It’s not something that we want to see done on a large scale.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and @MaryEllenKlas

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