Nursing homes with three or more COVID-19 cases will be the first to receive on-site diagnostic test equipment from federal health agencies — starting in regions where infections are spiking.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma
Seema Verma speaking at a July 14 press conference

The news was announced Wednesday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a day after Administrator Seema Verma revealed a new federal plan to deploy rapid point-of-care COVID-19 testing capabilities to eldercare facilities nationwide.

In next week’s rollout, federal agencies will prioritize about 2,000 facilities in hard-hit locations such as Florida, Arizona and Texas. Each approved facility will receive one diagnostic testing instrument and associated tests. Once equipment is distributed, operators can procure additional tests directly from the manufacturers, health officials said in a Wednesday call to nursing homes.

The goal is to support on-site infection control and prevention through universal testing, said Verma.

“It gives nursing homes the ability to swiftly identify residents that need to be isolated and mitigate the spread of the virus, she explained in a Tuesday statement. “As one more tool in the toolbox, it represents an important step toward the long-awaited reunion of residents with their loved ones.”

To take part, nursing homes must have the capability to test residents and staff on a weekly basis or in accordance with state and local health department guidance, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is helping to distribute the equipment. Visitor testing is also possible “if appropriate for that facility,” the agency added.

The equipment, including the Quidel Sofia and Sofia 2 Instruments and BD Veritor Plus Systems, uses antigen tests that can quickly detect fragments of viral proteins in nasal cavity swab samples, providing results in minutes. 

While point-of-care tests may be “slightly more likely” to have a false negative result than laboratory tests, “these are the best, most cost-effective tests we have on the market right now,” said Adm. Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services during the Wednesday call.

“We think this is going to be a turning point in this fight against the coronavirus and keeping our residents safe,” CMS’s Verma concluded.

The new federal initiative was announced after months of lobbying for better testing access by the eldercare industry. Now some advocates have questions. Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge, has called for more information about staff training, access to ongoing test supplies, and test reliability for operators’ planning purposes. 

“We look forward to learning more details about the plans,” she said.