Detecting Infected Staff Is Key to Limiting Spread Within Nursing Homes

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At least 46 of Maryland's long-term care facilities have a greater number of staff members who are infected with COVID-19 than residents, according to a News4 I-Team review of data the state released Wednesday evening. Some homes report having only staff members infected. 

The revelation comes as state health officials work to enact measures to control the spread of the virus through assisted living and nursing homes, where more than 1,500 staff have tested positive.

"We've had people that were on the non-corona side that have now tested positive that before had tested negative," said one nursing home worker who asked not to be identified. "These people cannot leave their rooms. They're obviously getting it from staff."

Nearly half of Maryland's deaths from COVID-19 have been residents and staff from long-term care facilities, most of which stopped allowing visitors two months ago. That means residents' only contact is with facility staff.

Some facilities are woefully short-staffed with so many workers out sick with the virus, leaving administrators to creatively schedule those who remain.

The worker told the I-Team she might be working with COVID-19 patients one day and healthy patients the next, so she fears transmitting the disease. Plus, staff members could carry the virus from one facility to another.

Coronavirus Cases & Deaths in Long-Term Care Facilities

COVID-19 cases and deaths in long-term care facilities in D.C. and Maryland.

Source: Maryland Coronavirus, DC Coronavirus Data
Credit: Anisa Holmes/NBC Washington

"It's very common for staff to work at several different homes, as well as for some staff to do private home care where they deal with private residents," she said.

In Montgomery County, health officer Dr. Travis Gayles says many homes have restricted staff to only working in one facility to limit the spread of the disease. He supports that restriction but acknowledges that it adds to the staffing shortage.

"If you've got a number of staff who are out due to being quarantined for different reasons, that can create some challenges," Gayles said.

On Wednesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the creation of special bridge teams to provide emergency clinical staffing to nursing homes experiencing a crisis. The teams can help care for up to 100 residents per shift.

Hogan also announced mandatory testing for all residents and staff at nursing homes even if they have no symptoms.

"Any staff who tests positive will be immediately discharged into isolation and we're requiring all of these facilities to develop emergency surge staffing plans," said Hogan.

The unidentified worker told the I-Team that is also significant, since facilities desperate for workers would not otherwise permit employees who feel well to stay home. 

"I know of staff members that have called out because their family members have gotten sick. And, you know, via the health department, they say you're supposed to quarantine for 14 days," she said. "They tell them, 'Come in anyways. If you're not showing any symptoms, come to work.'"

The state will now be able to put a stop to that by testing everyone.

The governor acknowledged that will likely cause the number of known positive cases among residents and staff to rise, since those who are infected but asymptomatic will still be detected.

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