With personal protective equipment (PPE) in short supply across the country, skilled nursing facilities have felt left out in efforts to bolster health care capacity in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic — even though by most measures, they are arguably on the front lines of the battle to contain the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
A report from ABC News published late last week suggests that might be changing: Vice President Mike Pence told governors on that day that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be shipping PPE directly to all nursing homes in the U.S.
“We are literally contracting to ship direct what amounts to PPE packages to all 15,000-plus nursing homes in the country. And it’s going to be a supply for a specific set of weeks,” Pence said, according to a recording of the call obtained by ABC News.
NBC News had a similar report on April 28 in its liveblog of COVID-19 updates, citing an internal FEMA e-mail obtained by the news organization.
Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), had indicated such an announcement might be in the works in a press call with reporters held on April 20 when she described nursing homes as “ground zero.”
“FEMA is particularly focused on nursing homes, and you’re going to be hearing more about their efforts to directly supply nursing homes to make sure that they have PPE,” she said on the April 20 call.
The move would be a departure from the typical way FEMA operates with regard to equipment: Skilled Nursing News reached out to the agency on April 20 to learn more about this effort, and was told on April 23 that the work with nursing homes was being led by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and CMS.
Typically, requests for assistance at the local and county level would go through the state, which would then send any requests for help that it could not meet to the appropriate FEMA regional office, SNN was told on April 23.
“There are no specific Resource Requests at this time specific to nursing homes, however, nursing home needs may be a part of a state’s general request for assistance,” a FEMA spokesperson said at the time.
As of Friday that may no longer be in effect; according to the FEMA email, shipments of PPE to nursing homes will begin the first week of May on a rolling basis, and will be completed by the middle of June, NBC reported. These shipments will include gloves, gowns, eye protection, and surgical masks, according to the news outlet.
LeadingAge CEO Katie Smith Sloan welcomed the news in a statement sent late on Tuesday. The association represents non-profit senior living and care providers.
“This is the first sign in months that our calls for personal protective equipment (PPE) prioritization for providers of aging services are being heard,” Sloan said in the release, though she also noted this was a “long overdue initial step.”
The American Health Care Association (AHCA), which represents about 14,000 nursing homes and assisted living communities, also expressed appreciation for the announcement, while emphasizing the need.
“Long-term care facilities desperately need this equipment to protect themselves and their vulnerable residents from COVID-19,” AHCA said in its statement on April 28. “Since this outbreak began, long term care providers have struggled to acquire these supplies due to the strain on the supply chain. These facilities eagerly await this assistance from the administration, and we hope we’ll continue to see ongoing relief efforts and resources directed toward long term care residents and staff.”
LeadingAge, for its part, emphasized that PPE is far from SNFs’ only need during the pandemic: Testing for COVID-19 has also been in chronically short supply.
“The only way to avert this slow-motion catastrophe is to provide meaningful levels of PPE, as well as effective and efficient testing and a comprehensive approach to supporting older adults and the workers who care for them,” Sloan said in the release. “Without additional action — especially as some states governments are once again failing to consider the needs of older people as they take steps to reopen —millions of vulnerable Americans and those who care for them are threatened.”
FEMA and CMS did not respond to calls and e-mails from SNN seeking comment as of press time.