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Maryland Gov. Hogan orders universal coronavirus testing at nursing homes after hundreds of deaths

Governor Larry Hogan personally planning to address issues with the states unemployment website.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday ordered universal coronavirus testing at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities after hundreds of deaths at those sites and calls on state government to better protect its most vulnerable residents.

After ramping up testing capacity ― something the state has struggled with for weeks ― Hogan said he is taking a number of actions to try to stop the spread of the virus from ravaging senior-living facilities across the state. The testing will include all staff and residents, whether they display symptoms of illness or not.

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Speaking from the State House in Annapolis, the Republican governor said he also was mandating that nursing homes accept the assistance of the state’s so-called strike teams, which have provided medical help to more than 80 facilities, after reports some had turned the teams away. The governor said he was requiring daily evaluations by doctors of nursing home residents.

“We are increasingly concerned and quite frankly, outraged, that a few operators are not complying with directives from the state,” Hogan said.

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To help the strike teams, Hogan said he was creating new so-called bridge teams, which will provide emergency clinical staffing to nursing homes that need workers.

The bridge teams will include 260 registered nurses, the governor said.

Hogan also announced the appointment of Col. Eric Allely, the state surgeon of the Maryland National Guard, to serve as an emergency safety and compliance officer for nursing homes. His task is to ensure they comply with state law and safety protocols during the crisis.

“We are no longer just playing defense. We are going on offense against this virus, attacking it from every angle with everything we’ve got,” the governor said.

Hogan’s move to provide universal testing comes nearly a month after nursing homes advocates and others said much more testing was necessary to curb the spread of the virus in elder care facilities. State health officials believe the disease spread into the facilities carried by asymptomatic staffers who sometimes work in multiple nursing homes.

But the state, like the nation, has been hamstrung by a lack of critical testing supplies and stringent guidelines on who could and could not be tested.

After weeks of pressure, the state began releasing information Tuesday about infections and deaths at Maryland nursing homes. So far, more than 50% of the state’s confirmed deaths from COVID-19 have been connected to nursing homes. And at least six nursing homes have more than 100 cases, according to the new data.

Nursing home administrators have pressed the state to expand testing and help them obtain protective equipment, such as masks and gowns.

Joe DeMattos, president of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, said access to testing has become increasingly important as outbreaks have revealed the extent to which asymptomatic staff members spread the virus, despite proper use of protective equipment and other measures.

But testing remained limited unless residents or staff showed signs of illness.

“To the extent that we can follow through on testing all nursing home staff, residents and patients, we are taking important and giant steps forward,” DeMattos said. “It’s going to have to be systematic.”

The addition of the teams of nurses also could help facilities manage outbreaks better than the “strike teams," DeMattos added. The strike teams have helped stabilize emerging outbreaks, but only provide brief support and limited testing, he said. Many nursing homes are dealing with chronic staffing and equipment shortages.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, who chairs a House of Delegates’ health committee, said she became concerned recently when she learned nursing homes weren’t doing universal testing. She had been under the impression that the strike teams were doing widespread testing at nursing homes.

Without knowing which residents and employees might have the virus, it’s impossible to keep it from spreading among vulnerable seniors, said Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat.

“If it gets in, it’s deadly. They need to do everything they can,” Pendergrass said. “I’m so glad we’re improving what we’re doing.”

The state has taken steps to try to limit transmission of the virus in nursing homes, but the virus has continued to spread and sicken residents. In early March, the state asked nursing homes to restrict visitors and employee travel. By early April, the state required nursing home workers to wear masks at all times.

The mandated testing at nursing homes is now possible because of the state’s increased testing capacity. Hogan said 500,000 new tests the state recently purchased from a South Korean company would help expand testing to better address the state’s virus “hot spots.”

Hogan also said Wednesday that the Eastern Shore’s poultry processing plants have emerged as hot spots for coronavirus infections and deaths. The governor said there are 262 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections among poultry workers in Maryland.

As with meatpacking plants in other parts of the country, there are concerns that the virus is sickening employees who work close together butchering and processing chickens and other birds at plants on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia and in lower Delaware. Meat shortages could result from plant closures.

In response, the state is opening a testing site at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, a minor league baseball stadium in Salisbury.

Millions of chickens in Maryland and Delaware were slated to be destroyed instead of processed due to staff shortages at the plants during the pandemic.

The governor’s new orders came as the coronavirus death toll in Maryland neared 1,000, with the state reporting 56 new confirmed victims in Wednesday’s daily update. There have been nearly 21,000 confirmed cases in the state.

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Hogan also addressed problems with the state’s unemployment website, which has crashed as many users tried to file claims. He said the state is processing more than 700 claims an hour, but those efforts are not good enough.

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“The people of Maryland deserve better and the buck stops with me,” he said.

Hogan also said other states are ignoring federal guidelines to wait until they have 14 days of declining coronavirus data before reopening. He said he planned to revisit in May whether the virus is weakening in Maryland and the state can begin reopening.

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