On Tuesday — 67 days after the first coronavirus cases started to appear in Pennsylvania — state officials announced that they would test every resident and employee in Pennsylvania nursing homes.

The testing initiatives for those state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine repeatedly refers to as our most vulnerable residents come weeks after mass testing sites have been set up — not in nursing homes — but in parking lots and health facilities around the state, and following the coronavirus-related deaths of more than 2,600 residents of nursing and personal care homes — nearly 70 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Pennsylvania since the outbreak started in early March.

“It’s mindboggling we are not prioritized for testing,” Mary Kay McMahon, president and CEO of a Lehigh County nursing home said during a state Senate hearing one week ago. She and other nursing home operators said testing is essential to identify people who have coronavirus but are not exhibiting symptoms.

Levine said that the state is only now moving to roll out universal testing because it didn’t have access to adequate testing supplies to do it sooner. Yet dozens of public testing sites for anyone with doctors’ orders have been operating for weeks across the state. Here’s the map, published on the state Department of Health website, showing the testing locations:

When asked about the new nursing home testing initiative by CNHI newspapers on Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf said: “What we are going to do, which I think is fairly radical, is to make sure we are doing surveillance testing.”

Dr. Levine said: “Our nursing home residents are among the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, and we have taken swift action to protect them. COVID-19 is a particularly challenging situation for these skilled nursing settings as they care for residents with serious medical conditions.”

The state’s action here has hardly been “swift.” In fact, it is well behind what other states have been doing.

Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, said: “Neighboring states, including Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia and New York, have prioritized testing for long-term care residents and workers whether they exhibit symptoms or not. In the absence of a vaccine, this is the best method to address and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

The regulation of nursing homes is the primary responsibility of the state Department of Health. An independent evaluation and review should be conducted to determine if the state Department of Health indeed took “swift action to protect” our “most vulnerable Pennsylvanians.” 

NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Digital Editor Dave Hilliard.

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