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Maine CDC Grappling With How To Best Help Maine's Nursing Homes Get Through The Pandemic

Residents of nursing homes account for more than half of all deaths from COVID-19 in Maine, one of only a handful of states that share that distinction.

Residents of nursing homes account for more than half of all deaths from COVID-19 in Maine, one of only a handful of states that share that distinction.

The Maine Center for Disease Control is grappling with how best to prevent further outbreaks in settings where transmission can be swift and deadly.

So far in Maine, the deaths have been concentrated at three of the six nursing homes with outbreaks. At the Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough, 11 residents have died. At Tall Pines in Belfast, 10 residents. And at the Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation, four residents.

In total, says state CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shaw: "There are 25 individuals who have passed away who were residents of long-term care, out of a total of 47. So that's a high percentage."

It's more than half of all COVID-19 deaths in the state. Just six other states that publicly report data have rates that high, according to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Shah says the high rate in Maine can be explained, in part, by the aggressive testing policies his agency has taken. The state CDC broke away from federal guidelines to elevate nursing home residents and staff to top priority for testing. The agency was also one of the first states to implement universal testing for all residents and staff in facilities in which an outbreak of at least three cases was detected.

"As a result of that, patients who might have otherwise passed away, now are passing away and being classified as COVID-19. So that does affect the numbers," says Shah.

At the same time, Shah says, nursing homes can be a hotbed for COVID-19 transmission, and that's why they're a primary focus for the state. The Mills Administration recently surveyed Maine's 93 nursing homes to assess their preparedness. The state's Long-Term Care Ombudsman Brenda Gallant collaborated with the state to conduct the survey.

"Well I think that some facilities seem very well prepared, and others just need support," she says.

Gallant says her office is reviewing the results of the survey to determine what assistance nursing homes need.

"What I would stress is this: PPE is the critical element in terms of safety of residents and staff."

The state CDC has made deliveries of PPE, or Personal Protective Equipment, to nursing homes, but a global shortage has been an ongoing issue during the pandemic. Gallant says staffing has been a perennial challenge that's now been magnified, but there are positive signs. She says some health care workers from within the medical community have responded to calls from the state Board of Nursing to work at nursing homes during this public health emergency.

"I guess I want to stress that there's a lot, there's a lot going outside the facilities to try to support them as they face this great challenge in providing care during COVID-19."

And Dr. Nirav Shah of the CDC says he expects to soon unveil additional policies and services for nursing homes to prevent outbreaks.

Originally posted 6:01 p.m. April 24, 2020