Nursing homes in areas that have low COVID-19 positivity rates are now receiving additional rapid testing options from the federal government for the first time, according to a top health official. 

Over the last two weeks, the Department of Health and Human Services has distributed extra Abbott BinaxNOW tests to nursing homes in “yellow” counties, while nursing homes in “green” counties have also finally started receiving the supplies. The move comes after the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that Medicare will cover monoclonal antibody therapy for COVID-19 treatments.

“For this therapy to be most effective, it needs to be given early, so distributing BinaxNOW to all nursing homes means that they have a very sensitive way to immediately diagnose a symptomatic resident who might benefit from the [Eli] Lilly monoclonal therapy that’s actually in the states as of today,” HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir, M.D., said during a media call Monday.

HHS announced the distribution of the BinaxNOW tests in early September, with the first shipments going to providers with higher positivity rates. Overall, more than 36 million testing supplies have been delivered to nursing homes across the country.

Giroir also said Tuesday that the federal government will be distributing another 1.99 million BinaxNOW tests to nursing homes this week. Additionally, 421,000 tests will be sent to assisted living facilities and 336,000 tests will go to home health and hospice entities. 

Doubling down 

Giroir also called for increasing adherence to public health safety measures, like social distancing and universal mask wearing, as cases increase dramatically across the United States. 

“We now understand that the endgame for this pandemic is in sight but we are now still in a critical and dangerous time with cases rising across the country, hospitalizations approaching peaks that were reached in mid-summer and, tragically, deaths also increasing,” Giroir said.  

“I want to reinforce to the American people … that we have to double down on public health measures and if we do we can save thousands of lives and further societal disruption,” he warned. 

An analysis of COVID-19 data among nursing home residents and staff members showed that weekly cases have quadrupled from the end of May to late October in 20 states.

In addition to social distancing and mask wearing, Giroir emphasized the need for good hand hygiene, cleaning surfaces consistently and sufficient testing of both symptomatic and asymptomatic people. 

“If the above steps are taken, there is no need to ‘shut down’ communities, workplaces and schools. Such total shutdowns are no more effective and risk the lives of additional thousands of Americans because of mental illness, suicide, substance abuse, lack of preventative care and medical care, and economic hardship,” he said.