State officials say a pilot testing program being conducted at long-term care centers in South Jersey is yielding surprising and sobering data that’s helping them understand how COVID-19 spread quickly through nursing homes in the state, and perhaps among the population at large.
Deputy Health Commissioner Marcela Maziarz said all 3,700 staff and residents at the 16 facilities included in the program were tested for the virus, and significant numbers have turned out to be positive even though they didn’t show symptoms of the disease.
“What we found was astonishing,” she said.
As part of the pilot program, 12 teams of Cooper University Health Care workers were sent to the 16 facilities — selected because each reported a low rate of infection, fewer than 10 COVID-19 cases. But the nasal swab tests showed that, out of 2,069 residents, 16% tested positive, as did 9% of 1,719 health care staffers.
For the most part, testing that’s been done thus far in New Jersey has been limited to those showing symptoms of COVID-19 symptoms. Even in a small sample, the results confirm health officials’ suspicions of how COVID-19 caught fire in north Jersey and burned so quickly through a highly vulnerable population.
“For some facilities, we found as high as 61% — both of staff and residents — with COVID-positive tests,” Maziarz said. “These were asymptomatic individuals, so many did not show symptoms, but now are showing back positive on the test.”
Implications beyond care facilities
The data, still preliminary pending analysis of all the results, is designed to help shape the state’s future response to the crisis among nursing homes, as well as the population at large, officials said.
“It will inform how we will go forward, not just in long-term care, but many of the people that we tested were asymptomatic, so we’re trying to determine the percentage of asymptomatic individuals who could also be positive for COVID-19,” said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli at the state’s daily briefing on the crisis Tuesday.
“It’s going to be important information, not only for our long-term care facilities, but for our general population as well,” she added, noting that the state has 92% of the test results in at this point. “So more to come on that. I do expect that we’ll be able to report out generally on the results by the end of the week, for sure.”
Local health departments will help facilities cohort — or separate — patients who tested positive so they don’t infect healthy residents. “They will be tested to make sure they are not shedding the virus and there is guidance that we are giving to staff to remain at home,” Maziarz said.
The state is planning to expand testing to include all 70,000 long-term care residents in New Jersey, as this pilot study sheds light on a problem that could be much larger than officials originally anticipated.
‘We have community spread’
“Most of that spread of COVID-19 in our facilities has happened, unfortunately, due to the staff,” Maziarz said. “The staff is in the community. We have community spread.”
“We may be going out to facilities that have told us, ‘we only have 25 individuals that are positive,’” Maziarz said. “But when we go out, what we’re finding is asymptomatic residents and staff could be COVID positive.”
The results made sense to the special advocate for New Jersey’s long term care residents, who took note of calls she’s gotten from families frustrated about not being able to visit loved ones, a ban imposed by state officials to prevent spread of the disease among residents.
“I think families’ attitudes now are, ‘we stayed out because we trusted that if we stayed out, this would impede the spread of the virus for the common good,’” said Ombudsman Laurie Facciarossa Brewer. “The fact is we now have community spread in New Jersey.”
Officials have talked about the need for significantly enhanced testing, as part of tentative plans to ease some of the social-distancing restrictions that have devastated the economy. The pilot program also underscores the urgency to get enhanced testing plan in place before the beginning of fall flu season, they said.