Kelly orders nursing homes to test staff, residents for COVID-19

From left, Gov. Laura Kelly, Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services secretary Laura Howard and Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman answer questions from reporters during a news briefing Wednesday at the Capitol. (Screenshots from video feed/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly announced Wednesday she was issuing a new executive order to require nursing homes to abide by COVID-19 testing guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The order goes into effect Monday and will require regular testing of staff and residents in state-licensed adult care homes based on the severity of COVID-19 cases in their county. The scale progresses from testing once per month to once per week to twice per week.

“By implementing uniform testing guidelines, my administration hopes to provide clarity for nursing facilities statewide on the testing practices that will protect their workers, their residents and communities from the spread of COVID-19,” Kelly said during a news briefing at the Statehouse.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported the deaths of 85 more Kansans since Monday, bringing the pandemic’s death toll to 1,941.

There are 212 active outbreaks at long-term care facilities. From the start of the pandemic, outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Kansas have resulted in 873 deaths, plus thousands of infections.

Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, said the state’s broader testing capacity makes the governor’s executive order a “common sense measure.”

“It’s very lethal as this virus enters nursing facilities,” Howard said. “So this testing strategy is one more way to prevent COVID-19 from entering all adult care homes, from detecting cases quickly and stopping transmission and really allowing facilities then to take the appropriate steps.”

The governor relayed concerns expressed to her in a recent letter by a Kansan whose 97-year-old mother died from COVID-19. The author, identified as Jeffrey, said his mother lived a long life and may not have had much time left regardless of the pandemic.

Still, he wrote, he was able to visit her frequently before the pandemic hit.

“I enjoyed my time I spent with her in her twilight years,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, COVID-19 ended our visits, and then ended her life. As we head into the teeth of this pandemic, I urge you to use all of your authority to take all of the necessary actions and precautions to slow the spread of this dreadful virus. I don’t want another son, sister or brother, mom or dad to write another letter to you pleading for you to take action. Please, I don’t want my mother to be just another statistic in this deadly year.”

Kelly said she would deploy every strategy possible to save lives, but that she depended on the willingness of Kansans to do their part.

“I need every Kansan to help make a difference in reducing hospital capacity, protecting health care workers and keeping our neighbors safe and healthy,” Kelly said. “I need them to commit to the cornerstones of COVID-19 mitigation, wearing a face covering physically distancing, avoiding gatherings, washing hands often and now getting tested. We must protect our most vulnerable and look after each other. We cannot let good people like Jeffrey’s mother be just another statistic.”

Also during the Wednesday briefing, KDHE secretary Lee Norman provided an update on plans to distribute the soon-to-arrive COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer.

Shipments will arrive in boxes containing 4,875 doses, a GPS sensor, dry ice and a temperature probe. The vaccine has to kept in a deep freeze until it is nearly ready to be administered.

“The Pfizer product is very finicky, and we are taking all the cautions we can to make sure that no vials are wasted,” Norman said. “It’s going to be a very precious material for us to monitor very closely.”