Federal government sending coronavirus antigen tests to nursing homes nationwide

Nursing Home Investigations

FILE – This Aug. 2, 2018, file photo shows the U.S. Food and Drug Administration building behind FDA logos at a bus stop on the agency’s campus in Silver Spring, Md. U.S. regulators have approved a new type of coronavirus test that administration officials have touted as a key to opening up the country. The Food and Drug Administration on Saturday, May 9, 2020, announced emergency authorization for antigen tests developed by Quidel Corp. of San Diego. The test can rapidly detect fragments of virus proteins in samples collected from swabs inside the nasal cavity, the FDA said in a statement. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The federal government plans to provide on-site, rapid coronavirus testing to nursing homes across the nation.

According to U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) on Tuesday, the antigen tests will be distributed to nursing homes in “hotspot” geographic areas. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) will prioritize which homes receive the tests first, and distribution will begin next week.

After the initial distribution from the government agency, nursing homes can then procure additional tests directly from the respective manufacturers — Quidel Corporation and Becton, Dickenson and Company. HHS said nursing homes must have the capability to screen and test residents and staff on a weekly basis or according to specific guidance by the state and local health departments.

HHS also said this new effort could allow facilities to have visitors — “if appropriate for that facility.”

“This new testing initiative is critical for keeping vulnerable older adults safe while delivering the quality of life they deserve,” said CMS Administrator Seema Verma. “It gives nursing homes the ability to swiftly identify residents that need to be isolated and mitigate the spread of the virus. As one more tool in the toolbox, it represents an important step toward the long-awaited reunion of residents with their loves ones.”

CMS will be providing FDA-approved antigen tests. These tests detect certain proteins that are part of the virus, using a nasal or throat swab to get a fluid sample. These tests are different than molecular diagnostic tests that detect the genetic material of the virus using a lab technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

According to the release from HHS, “These [antigen] tests may be slightly more likely to have a false negative result than molecular PCR COVID tests.”

“The devil is in the details,” said Brian Lee, the executive director for the nonprofit Families for Better Care.

“We were really ecstatic when we heard that they were doing rapid testing,” he went on. “The euphoria wore off a little bit because they are using the antigen testing as the primary indicator in nursing homes.”

Lee said he assumes they opted for this type of testing because it’s more widely available and easier to deploy and use in the homes. He said this move was definitely a great step on the right direction, but his organization is ultimately calling for on-site molecular testing devices.

“The testing is the difference-maker. Once they have the testing in place, they can pinpoint who has the virus, get those folks to medical attention, quarantine them away from the well population, and cut the virus’s legs out from underneath it before it starts to spread more in the facility, make people sick and potentially kill them.”

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