Laboratory scene: Gloved hand lifts a COVID-19 diagnostic sample from a set of test tubes

The federal government’s plan to provide “point-of-care” COVID-19 tests to every single U.S. nursing home is “welcome news for long-term care residents, staff and providers.” 

“Repeated, ongoing testing is the only way we are going to beat this virus,” Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association, said of the plan. “Regular testing of nursing home and assisted living staff is a vital step in controlling the spread of COVID-19, but is not effective without obtaining timely test results. For nursing homes and assisted living communities to protect residents and staff, we need on-site testing with reliable and rapid results.”

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma made the testing announcement Tuesday during a press conference in Baton Rouge, LA, adding that the point-of-care tests will be used for both residents and workers.

Distribution for the testing devices will begin next week, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Nursing homes will receive one diagnostic test instrument and associated tests from the federal government. Following initial distribution, nursing homes can procure additional tests directly from manufacturers.

“Nursing homes must have the capability to screen and test residents, and test staff on a weekly basis or according to specific guidance by the state and local health departments. This procurement will also enable testing of visitors if appropriate for that facility,” HHS said. 

LeadingAge expressed skepticism about the announcement, saying that the federal government’s past announcements have “sounded big but delivered less.” The organization added that it’s looking forward to learning more details about the plans. 

“For example, how will providers be trained? Will supplies be provided on an ongoing basis? Our members will be basing significant infection control decisions based on the tests results, so what guidance will CMS provide regarding reliability?” Katie Smith Sloan, LeadingAge president and CEO, said in a statement. 

Assistant Secretary of HHS Admiral Brett Giroir

The testing devices initially are to be given to 2,000 nursing homes next week, said Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Admiral Brett Giroir. He described them as “rapid on the spot, 20 tests per hour” devices and said that the goal is to get them to “every single of the 15,400 nursing homes within this country.”

Nursing homes would receive the devices in an order “ranked by Administrator Verma and her team,” as determined by the rate of the virus’ spread in the surrounding community, Giroir noted. 

He added the day’s announcement was a “really historic moment” and predicted that the deliveries would “save thousands of lives.”

“This is not an acquisition,” Giroir said. “This is not just writing a check and doing it. This has been the culmination of about two months of work, to develop the technology, increase the sensitivity of the test to make sure they’ll be highly protective. Of investments in technology, of regulatory flexibility with the FDA, to bring it all together.”

Giroir separately told NPR in a report Tuesday that fast point-of-care tests can ease laboratories’ burdens, and possibly assist with faster reopenings of schools and businesses.

Critics of point-of-care testing have pointed out that error rates can be as high as 20%, meaning nearly one-fifth of all infections may be missed.