Nursing homes in areas with the high COVID-19 positivity rates will be receiving another point-of-care testing option from the federal government starting next week. 

Top health officials announced Tuesday evening that it will soon be distributing 750,000 “or potentially more” Abbott BinaxNOW rapid tests to nursing homes in “red” or “yellow” counties. Earlier this month, the federal government announced that it purchases 150 million of those tests to be distributed around the country. 

Providers are now being required to test all nursing home workers, with that routine testing being based on county-level positivity rates, meaning facilities in areas with higher coronavirus rates must test staff more. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid released a color-coded document featuring county COVID data late last week. The document uses green, yellow and red. Nursing homes in green counties have to test staff once per month; yellow counties must test staff once per week; and staff in red counties must be tested twice per week.

The additional testing supply distribution comes as federal officials increase their efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 in facilities, CMS Administrator Seema Verma said Tuesday night during a call with nursing home stakeholders. 

“While the rate has declined slightly, we do still see spread in our nursing homes,” she said. “It’s just sort of a call-to-action for all of us to just double down our efforts around infection control, testing and training.” 

The tests can be administered using a nasal swab which are “very sensitive for people who are in the first seven days of their illness,” explained Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett Giroir. He added the federal government will formally roll out the program later this week and state governors will also be receiving tests for distribution. Providers do need to have a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment  (CLIA) waiver to receive the tests. 

“We are doing this because we understand the testing requirements. If you’re in the red zone, it’s twice a week for your staff,” Giroir said. 

“Again, this will provide you an option. It will lessen, to a degree, the burden of ordering tests for your facility. There’s also a theoretical advantage for rotating the types of tests that you use, particularly if you’re in a twice-a-week scenario, between two different types of antigen tests,” he added. 

Resupply opportunities 

Overall, the federal government’s point-of-care testing program — distributing devices from Quidel and Becton Dickinson — has shipped 13,477 instruments and more than 4.7 million tests to 13,343 nursing homes. This week, it will complete shipments to another 507 facilities. 

Giroir said that following these first shipments of tests providers should use previously announced funding from the federal government to purchase more tests from each vendor.

“Starting this week, the BD inventory should be made available,” he said. “Now as supplies ramp up for each company and as the demand signal is reduced, those should be available [to providers]. We have a call with all six distributors for BD to make sure that nursing homes are prioritized. I cannot tell you that this will be 100 percent seamless over the first one to two weeks but we absolutely will be doing our best to make sure that you can be resupplied.” 

When asked about the burden the new testing requirements could have on facilities, Verma noted that routine staff testing doesn’t have to be done “all on the same day.”

“You can have a schedule for when you test certain staff or required residents, as well. That’s also something to keep in mind. Some of the nursing homes have a schedule for when they’re testing their employees,” she said, adding that regulators will use “discretion,” implying that well intended efforts would not be automatically penalized.