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Free, rapid coronavirus testing on the way to Florida nursing homes

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began sending free rapid testing machines to nursing homes in COVID-19 hotspots, including 110 in Tampa Bay.

Until two and a half weeks ago, Jacaranda Manor, a nursing home in St. Petersburg, kept residents grouped in COVID-19 units and non-COVID-19 units. It began when one of the nursing home’s 190 residents tested positive for the coronavirus on June 19.

At its peak, the home had 81 residents with the virus, said administrator Jon Bradford.

“We set up what we called a cold-, warm- and hot-zone,” Bradford said. “We would have flooded a couple of local hospitals if we sent people to the hospital.” As of Aug. 2, 18 residents of the facility had died from the coronavirus, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Four residents remain positive for the virus, Bradford said on Friday. But the facility’s new rapid, point-of-care antigen testing machine has helped to keep better track of who remains positive. It used to take hours or days to get test results back from a lab, he said.

“Now, within roughly 10 minutes, they know the result, and they can either move the resident out of the wing or get them treatment,” he said.

Jon Bradford, administrator of the Jacaranda Manor nursing home in St. Petersburg. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Jacaranda Manor is among the first nursing homes in the country to receive a free rapid testing device from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began mailing out the machines the week of July 20, along with enough materials to test all staffers and residents at least once.

“I’m sending one of those machines and testing to every single nursing home in the country,” said Brett Giroir, the department’s assistant secretary for health, in an interview with NBC News on Thursday.

Florida nursing homes will receive 472 of the first machine deliveries, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of those, 110 are in the Tampa Bay Area. Each nursing home will receive one of the machines and one round of tests, the agency said. Florida has nearly 700 nursing homes, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration’s website.

As of Aug. 6, about 40 percent of the state’s 8,051 COVID-19 deaths were attributed to long-term care centers, according to the Florida Department of Health.

At Jacaranda Manor, not only will the machine give quicker results, it will save the facility money. After the nursing home runs out of its 400 initial free tests, it will pay $25 per test, which is much lower than the facility would pay to a lab, Bradford said.

The federal program prioritized sending the machines to facilities in COVID-19 hot spots. According to a fact sheet, the first deliveries went to nursing homes reporting: “Three or more confirmed or suspected new cases of COVID-19 in the last week; at least one new COVID-19 case in the last week after having zero previous COVID-19 cases; inadequate access to testing in the last week; at least one new resident death due to COVID-19 in the last week; or at least one new confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case among staff in the last week.”

The program requires that receiving nursing homes have the capability to screen and test residents, and will test staff on a weekly basis or according to specific guidance by the state and local health departments,” according to a July 14 press release.

Having these compact, table-top machines in every nursing home can give results so quickly, it could help speed up a return to visitations, according to Fredrick Piccolo Jr., communications director for Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“That is certainly the hope,” Piccolo Jr. wrote in an email. “Nothing is guaranteed it seems in the COVID era, but it is anticipated that these machines will give caregivers and their patients an informed choice with regard to visitation.”

Kristen Knapp is the spokesperson for the Florida Health Care Association, a trade group that represents long-term care facilities. Of the 85 nursing homes in the group slated to receive the machines in the first round, five have had them delivered, she said.

“Being able to test quickly is just another another way to be vigilant in our infection precautionary measures to mitigate the spread and keep our residents protected,” she said. These machines also may be a way to screen visitors quickly and accurately, she said.

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