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Better testing and more transparency needed at Massachusetts nursing homes

Assigning blame is not the priority. Urgent action is.

Cleaners unwrap their protective gear, March 31, as they leave the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, where 50 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Massachusetts nursing homes — like others across the country — are a heartbreaking ground zero for COVID-19. With a national shortage of tests in the early days of the pandemic, and personal protective equipment hard to come by, some facilities turned into virtual killing fields for their elderly, frail residents. Their caregivers also worked at great personal risk.

Getting the full picture in Massachusetts has been difficult. State officials have dragged their feet when it comes to providing a complete list of cases or deaths in long-term care facilities, and in some cases, inaccurate information has been released. In response, Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said, “I’m looking forward to the day when we’re perfect in reporting data in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It probably won’t occur in my lifetime.”


Along with accuracy, more transparency is definitely needed. At least hypothetically, that goal got a boost from a new federal requirement that mandates that residents and families must be alerted to COVID-19 outbreaks, and skilled nursing facilities must report cases and deaths to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And this week, the Massachusetts House passed legislation that would require long-term care and housing facilities to track and report COVID-19 positive cases and deaths to public health officials. The Senate should act quickly on it, and Governor Charlie Baker should sign it into law.

What is known so far in Massachusetts is that approximately 44 percent of COVID-19-related deaths occurred in long-term care facilities. The stories of death and infection at different facilities drip out daily, and the numbers shock the senses. For example, more than 50 deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home were attributed to COVID-19. At long-term care facilities across the state, someone’s mother or father, grandmother or grandfather is falling ill and dying alone.


However, testing remains a major problem. As the number of deaths in nursing homes from COVID-19 surpassed 1,000 this week, the state put a key component of its testing plan on hold. According to Sudders, that’s because tests shipped to the facilities have been poorly administered. After sending out 14,000 tests, Sudders said, only 4,000 were returned, and many of them were unlabeled or in tubes that leaked. As a fallback, the state will offer mobile testing through the National Guard. Meanwhile, health care experts like Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard, are also calling for “surveillance testing” of employees every few days to keep the virus from entering a facility and spreading.

At this point, assigning blame is not the priority. Urgent action is. The state and nursing homes together must solve the testing problems fast and then test nursing home workers frequently. Doing what it takes to stop COVID-19 from further decimating the state’s most vulnerable population should be everyone’s mission.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.