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When Will Oregon Devise a Plan for COVID-19 Testing in Nursing Homes?

The governor has been under pressure for weeks.

Gov. Kate Brown continues to say she's committed to "data and science" in deciding on a reopening plan, even as case counts of COVID-19 remain steady.

But Oregon still isn't testing its most vulnerable citizens: residents of nursing homes.

The Trump administration, which has been slow to act on COVID-19, advised governors last week to test everyone in nursing homes within two weeks. Oregon has been under pressure for weeks, yet hasn't launched a nursing home testing plan.

"I certainly think it's time," says Ruby Haughton-Pitts, the Oregon state director for AARP. "All congregate care facilities should provide testing and testing schedules for residents and staff"—meaning testing just once won't be adequate.

Testing staff and residents of the state's senior care facilities would be a massive undertaking: an estimated 57,000 tests, not including retesting staff. (So far the state has conducted just under 100,000 tests—total—since the pandemic began.) Oregon's Department of Human Services says it doesn't have data on how many people have already been tested at those facilities.

But more than a third of the state's deaths have been in nursing homes or other senior care facilities. Testing (along with adequate PPE) are the top requests from the union representing long-term care workers, says Melissa Unger, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 503.

"There needs to be a continued focus on long-term care," says Unger, whether the state reopens or not.

Jim Carlson, president of the nursing home industry's Oregon Health Care Association, says he expects a plan from the state in the coming weeks that may start with conducting tests in Portland-area counties that are seeing a higher number of cases.

"I fully believe we're going to identify more COVID-positive cases through this large an undertaking," he says. "But if you don't identify them, it's pretty hard to stop and restrict the spread."

The governor's office says Brown has made it a priority to keep nursing home residents safe.

"We are working to develop plans for a practical testing strategy for long-term care facilities within our capacity," says Brown's spokeswoman Liz Merah. "As with other guidance and recommendations from the White House, we must review and determine how best to implement that guidance on the ground in our state, given current and projected resources and capacity."