State Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine held a virtual press conference for reporters in addition to the daily briefing Tuesday afternoon, where reporters had the opportunity to ask her questions directly.

The vast majority of questions that were asked were related to the announcement that population-wide testing will begin for all long-term care facilities across the state for cases of COVID-19.

As part of this new initiative, facilities with at least one known positive will have to be tested at least once a week, regardless of whether they show symptoms.

For facilities without any cases, it’s recommended they test at least 20% of staff and residents once a week, so asymptomatic cases can be caught early before it can spread to residents and staff in the facility.

All facilities are required to report the testing through the data system that hospitals currently use as of May 17.

The disease caused by the novel coronavirus has been particularly devastating for those living in long-term care facilities. As of May 12, 11,801 of the 57,154 cases of COVID-19 have been from long-term living facilities.

Additionally, 2,552 of the 3,751 deaths associated with COVID-19 have been from long-term care facilities. Another 1,655 cases have involved employees at these facilities.

Measures taken to protect the most vulnerable populations of the state is one area where bipartisan support has been received. The state Senate approved Senate Bill 1122 that appropriates $507 million from the state’s share of federal CARES funding to support programs and services for seniors in the wake of COVID-19.

Additionally, $31 million was also approved in this bill for a one-time grant program for volunteer fire and EMS companies.

The bill will now go to the state House for approval.

As far as how often patients will be tested, Levine noted that testing guidance will be given to long-term care facilities, and she discussed the drawbacks to population based testing.

“It could be negative one day, then positive several days later,” she said, adding that while this is the case, it’s important to have testing on a consistent basis for it to be most effective.

It was also asked what the end game is for the state to get into the green zone, as there’s been no time frame of when that will be a thing.

“We’re still discussing what that looks like,” she said. “Only as of five days ago, 24 counties went into the yellow zone, and this Friday, 13 more will go from red to yellow. As we’ve repeated Dr. (Anthony) Fauci, the virus determines the timeline, as there’s still so much we don’t know about this virus.”

Someone also asked about moving seniors who have been hospitalized with a confirmed COVID-19 case from the hospital to a long-term care facility too soon, noting that beds in hospitals are available for those to recover until they’ve tested negative.

“If someone is in a nursing facility, if someone has significant symptoms, they get very ill, they will be transferred to the hospital,” she said. “Then, when they recover, they’re transferred back.”

She noted that logistically, those patients can’t remain in hospitals, so if they’re stable and recovering, they can transfer back to long-term care facilities.

“It’s impossible to stay in the hospital if you don’t need hospital care,” said Levine. “They would go back to their facility with proper infectious disease management.”

Levine also discussed long-term goals regarding testing, as they hope to ramp up testing significantly, not only in the immediate future, but aspirational goals.

Currently, on average, 6,600 tests are performed per day for COVID-19, and she hopes that in the immediate future, they hope to get to up to around 8,800 tests per day.

“There have been tremendous difficulties to get the testing capacity up,” she said. “The challenge with testing from the beginning has been getting the swabs and reagents.”

Levine said they’ve been in discussions with federal leaders in the past two weeks to have a rollout of swabs and reagents.

“We’ve received some of each, but not enough of either right now,” she said. “We’re also looking to get reagents through the supply chains, which has been successful and that increases our ability to do testing.”

Her long-term aspirational view is to have widespread population testing for all state residents, perhaps by the summer, but a lot of things would need to happen before that can be a reality.

“We don’t have to test someone every day, but we need a rapid, point-of-care test, or a home test, whether it’s a nasal swab or oral swab, that can be done quickly and has high sensitivity,” she said. “That’s when you’ll be able to do widespread population testing.”

Kylie can be reached at khawn@huntingdondailynews.com.

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