Mass. Abandons Plan to Convert Existing Nursing Homes into COVID-19 Care Centers

As recently as two weeks ago, the federal government was holding up Massachusetts as the pioneer of a push to “cohort” skilled nursing residents by converting some properties to centers dedicated to treating COVID-19.

This week, state officials announced a significant change in its nursing home coronavirus strategy, citing concerns over spreading the disease in a landscape where testing remains scarce.

The office of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has put a stop to the state’s plan to create dedicated COVID-19 nursing facilities by emptying out existing properties and transferring positive and negative residents to separate sites, the Boston Globe reported Tuesday.

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Health officials will instead focus on the temporary reopening of closed facilities. The Bay State intends to add 1,000 beds for COVID-19 care across properties in New Bedford, Falmouth, and East Longmeadow, the Globe reported.

The ambitious plan, initially announced at the end of March, would have seen operators voluntarily offer up their facilities as care sites exclusively for nursing home residents with COVID-19. Salmon Health and Retirement, a senior living and care operator in Massachusetts, began transferring all residents out of a facility in Worcester, but the move — as well as a similar conversion effort in Wilmington — was put on hold as residents began testing positive.

“The extreme vulnerability of long-term care residents ultimately made it infeasible for state officials to turn nursing homes into recovery centers; by the time the plan was conceived, the virus had already crept into too many sites,” the Globe observed.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) explicitly called out the since-aborted Massachusetts model when announcing a raft of waivers surrounding resident transfers, with the goal of creating separate units and buildings for positive and negative cohorts.

“Residents across the region who are infected with COVID-19 can be moved to this facility to receive appropriate care and avoid transmitting the virus within their facilities. This approach also eases the challenges of preventing transmission, like extensive PPE usage and isolation practices, for individual facilities,” CMS noted. “The Massachusetts arrangement, developed in coordination with the state’s government, is a prime example of the arrangements envisioned in the recommendations announced today.”

The quick failure of the model highlights the desperate need for widespread COVID-19 testing in the nation’s nursing facilities; “only a minority of residents” at long-term care facilities in Massachusetts have received tests, the Globe reported.

The city of Cambridge, Mass. became the first in the state to launch a universal testing plan for its nursing homes — regardless of symptoms — last week, according to the Globe, but several hundred results remain pending.

The state has seen 378 COVID-19 deaths related to nursing facilities, the Globe reported, representing 45% of all coronavirus fatalities.