Kansas nursing homes working to address staffing and safety problems, agency official says

Sen. Pat Petty and other members of the Senate Public Health Committee spoke Thursday with a representative of KDADS to address concerns with COVID-19 and nursing homes. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Kansas senator says federal pandemic aid has not been enough to alleviate ongoing issues with staffing and funding at Kansas nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state.

Sen. Pat Pettey, a Kansas City Democrat serving on the Senate Public Health Committee, said Thursday that issues like low wages and high exposure to COVID-19 have made it difficult for these facilities to weather the pandemic.

“It’s almost a no-win situation,” Pettey said. “The CARES money has tried to provide them with funding to address some issues, but it’s still going to have the issue like low-income workers that may have more exposure because they are coming in and out.”

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has recorded 590 outbreaks of COVID-19 at long-term care facilities, accounting for more than 12,000 cases and 1,408 deaths.

Scott Brunner, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, outlined to members of a Senate health panel on Thursday the guidelines for visiting with nursing home residents.

According to updated guidance issued on Sept. 17 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, indoor visitation is permitted if there has been no new onset of COVID-19 cases in the previous 14 days. An Oct. 19 guidance issued by KDADS added that visitation should be allowed if community spread of the virus is low and social distancing practices are in place.

“We have tried to be as permissive as possible but then also letting the facilities decide what they are comfortable doing,” Brunner said. “We also recognized that’s going to take staff time, so we’re also sensitive to this being a demand on somebody’s time to facilitate.”

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican and chairman of the Senate panel, raised another concern he had heard regarding regulatory agencies entering these facilities to conduct infection control surveys.

“They had no idea what their testing was, when the last time they were tested, and that was a big concern for some of them because you have someone outside coming into the facility,” Hilderbrand said.

Brunner said testing of surveyors is a challenge DADS is actively working to address. He said one change the agency made to address the concern was requiring those conducting the surveys to wear personal protective equipment, including gowns, gloves and N95 masks.

While CMS has not provided guidance to require testing of surveyors, Brunner said KDADS is working to ensure routine testing.

“I’m hoping by early next week we’ll be testing surveyors before they enter,” Brunner said. “These surveyors are all nurses so they can conduct these tests on themselves. They need to be observed conducting the test and we’re trying to figure out how to do that, but we should be testing surveyors on a regular basis before they begin.”