By Julie Havlak
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — North Carolina is asking nursing homes to begin regular, proactive testing for the coronavirus.
As of Friday, May 15, some 60% of COVID-19 deaths in North Carolina were linked to nursing homes and long-term care facilities, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of N.C. Health and Human Services, in a news conference.
The state has expanded its guidance on who can get tested for COVID-19. It now recommends medical professionals test anyone with symptoms or potential exposure, as well as connections to high-risk groups, including people in long-term care and correctional facilities and farm worker camps.
Before the state updated its guidelines, long-term care facilities had to test all residents and staff only after a confirmed case of coronavirus.
“We need periodic testing, regardless of outbreak,” Cohen said. “We know this virus is here, that it’s getting into some of those high-risk settings. We need to be even more proactive now that we have the supplies and capacity.”
The state hasn’t decided what “regular” testing means.
“We’re flying the plane and building it as we go here, as the science evolves,” Cohen said. “We want to make sure that everyone who needs a test gets a test.”
The state had completed 231,547 coronavirus tests, with 17,129 confirmed positives, 641 deaths, and 492 hospitalizations, as of Friday. It’s now conducting roughly 8,900 tests a day.
The state initially struggled with shortages in testing kits and supplies, and limited who qualified for a test. Cohen said the state has overcome shortages enough to escalate testing.
“When we first started this crisis, we didn’t have the tests we needed,” Cohen said. “We are largely in a very different place. … There’s more capacity, and we want to use it. That’s why we are ramping up.”
The state announced a testing plan for staff in correctional facilities. But it will test inmates only in the event of an outbreak. That would trigger contact tracing — monitoring the health of those who’ve come in contact with infected people — and additional testing.
“That’s the way the virus can potentially enter the prisons and correctional facilities,” Cohen said. “It’s good to prioritize the testing of our workers, since they’re the ones coming in and out. That’s a great first step forward.”
The state hopes to increase testing sites across the state. But the ability to test residents remains tethered to supplies of protective gear, including masks, gowns, and gloves.
“As we expand our testing and tracing, we want to make sure we have more personal protective equipment,” said Mike Sprayberry, N.C. emergency management director. “And as schools open up in August, are we going to need more [personal protective equipment] for that?”