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Our View: Lack of coronavirus testing to blame for unfolding nursing home tragedy in Mount Airy

When the announcement regarding the first two positive tests for the novel coronavirus among Pleasant View Nursing Home residents came nine days ago, the initial hope was that the spread could be contained. When the numbers of residents at the Mount Airy facility testing positive ballooned to 66 the next day and then to 77, the largely unspoken though widely held belief was that perhaps the nursing home had done something wrong or hadn’t done enough to prevent the invasion and spread of COVID-19.

And then, mid-week, the first positive tests were announced at Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster. As well as at other elder care facilities throughout Maryland. Gov. Larry Hogan and other state officials said on Friday that coronavirus cases or clusters of cases had been identified in more than 60 nursing homes across the state.

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It’s now clear that regardless of whether Pleasant View and the rest perfectly followed guidelines and did everything possible to disinfect and to prevent visitors in the weeks leading up to the positive tests, the coronavirus still would llikely have turned up at the facilities.

Hogan suggested in a nationally televised Tuesday night interview that a staff member without symptoms likely introduced the virus to Pleasant View and it then spread “like wildfire.” That theory has been advanced by the state’s top health officials.

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That makes sense and it’s an unavoidable, and tragic, consequence of our nation’s inability to do widespread testing to this point in the coronavirus crisis.

Pleasant View Administrator Rebecca Travels told us she was told by the state health department — back before any of her residents had tested positive — that her facility didn’t qualify for testing under the federal government’s criteria.

As of Friday night, six Pleasant View residents has died and 24 staff members had tested positive. By Tuesday morning the death toll for residents had risen to 14. At Carroll Lutheran Village, seven residents and two staff members had tested positive through Friday.

Nursing homes are particularly high-risk locations for the coronavirus, which is more dangerous for the elderly and those with existing health conditions. There have been significant outbreaks in numerous states, but Pleasant View is the worst since 35 people died following an outbreak at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a suburb of Seattle.

Frances Phillips, Maryland’s deputy secretary for public health services, said there is “clear evidence” that asymptomatic staff are helping the spread. She said the state is now ordering that all workers within nursing homes must wear masks. “It’s important that we smother these nursing homes with infection control,” she said.

To be clear, however, just because the vast majority of Carroll cases have been associated with elder care — 110 out of 136 through Friday — doesn’t mean the virus isn’t in the community.

Many are walking around without symptoms, not realizing they have the coronavirus and potentially spreading it to anyone they come in contact with. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on NPR this week that perhaps 25% of those infected don’t realize it because their symptoms are mild or nonexistent. Other studies, including one in China, suggest that number could be far higher.

Which makes our inability to do widespread testing, and to get quick results, all the more problematic and dangerous. Progress is being made. President Trump was tested last week and had the results in 15 minutes.

We hope it won’t be long before the same test is available for every staff member at elder care facilities, to be done before they begin work each day. That could prevent a tragedy such as the one at Pleasant View from repeating itself throughout the state and country, Sadly, had that sort of testing been in place a month ago, perhaps there would’ve been no Pleasant View tragedy.

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