Verma: Nursing Homes Will Serve as ‘Foundation of our Surveillance’ of COVID-19

As the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continues to climb, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a way to increase reporting on outbreaks in skilled nursing facilities, CMS administrator Seema Verma said on a call with reporters on Wednesday.

“You’ll be seeing some more information from us at the end of this week on that,” Verma said. “We want to make sure that we all have real-time information about the status of the COVID-19 virus in nursing homes.”

The move comes as pressure mounts on the federal government to set up a mechanism of some kind for tracking outbreaks of COVID-19 in the nursing home setting, where it can cause immense loss of life.

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At least 46 residents died of the virus in a nursing home in Virginia, The New York Times reported Wednesday, and deaths in long-term care facilities across the country have climbed past 5,500, according to an NBC News report, also from Wednesday.

Currently, nursing homes are required to report any infectious disease outbreak to the local health department, according to current regulations, Verma said on the call. But the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the fragmented nature of nursing home regulations across the U.S., throwing into sharp relief the need for better coordination between states.

Verma elaborated on what that might look like on the call, calling out the efforts of the nursing home associations; the American Health Care Association (AHCA) has advised the thousands of SNFs it represents to report all COVID-19 cases to state survey agencies, as well as local health authorities and families.

“We’re looking to go further, to essentially requiring [that] that be provided,” she said on the Wednesday call. “They do report this information to the local health department, but we’re going to be enhancing our reporting requirements to get more real-time information about where there’s outbreaks across the country in nursing homes — basically enhancing their reporting directly to CDC.”

Montgomery County in Pennsylvania has already taken some steps in this regard by using analytics drawn from the electronic health records of patients in skilled nursing facilities to identify signs of COVID-19 before the locations become hot spots.

That early identification is crucial for the government’s surveillance efforts, particularly in terms of tracking infections as they begin to happen — and before the disease spread reaches “sort of an epidemic phase in a community,” Verma said.

“One of those areas is going to be the nursing homes, that’s going to be the foundation of our surveillance efforts,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re enhancing the reporting of nursing homes directly into CDC around the cases of COVID virus.”