Facing criticism for their slow response to the public health crisis in senior housing, state officials Monday ordered testing at all long-term care sites and announced an additional $130 million in new funding for Massachusetts nursing homes and rest homes struggling to contain the coronavirus.
The new emergency funding, which will help facilities cover staffing costs and bankroll infection control measures and personal protective equipment, is an acknowledgement that long-term care sites have emerged as hot spots for COVID-19 in Massachusetts. Nearly 1,700 long-term care residents have died from the virus in the past two months, according to data posted Monday by the Baker administration.
In the latest facility to report an outbreak, Mary Immaculate Nursing/Restorative Center of Lawrence said Monday that 46 residents who had tested positive for the virus have died, one of the largest tolls at a state nursing facility. A statement from Mary Immaculate said 35 of its staff members are currently out of work due to COVID-19 and are home recovering.
The new state funding follows an initial $130 million outlay earlier this month that included money to help nursing homes establish dedicated space for recovering patients.
As part of the second funding round, designed to support beleaguered nursing facilities for the next two months, Massachusetts will now require — and pay for — the testing of all staff and residents at long-term care sites, Governor Charlie Baker said at a Monday press briefing. The testing will be done by hospitals, private labs, emergency services, or National Guard lab technicians.
“Our nursing homes have been hit especially hard," Baker said. “Once COVID-19 gets into a facility, it spreads rapidly and in many cases can be undetected for days... This requires everyone to be more vigilant.″
More than 56 percent of the state’s deaths from coronavirus have been at nursing homes and rest homes, according to state’s latest tally. The percentage doesn’t include residents of assisted living or independent senior housing.
Assisted living and senior apartment buildings, which are privately run and funded, won’t be eligible for the new state money, the governor said Monday. But the state will also spend $44 million to increase support for 238 residential congregate care service providers, such as group homes operated by the state Division of Youth Services.
Some nursing home operators and relatives of residents have faulted the Baker administration for initially moving too slowly in ordering testing, for holding back information about virus outbreaks, and for issuing guidance, based on federal guidelines, that wasn’t keeping pace with the threat.
Baker didn’t address the criticism directly Monday. But he ticked off a number of steps the state has taken in the past two weeks, including stepping up mobile testing, creating a state portal to recruit nursing home staffers, and establishing a telephone hotline for residents and their families.
“Protecting our most vulnerable citizens, in nursing homes, rest homes, and assisted living residences, has emerged as among the greatest challenges we face in our fight against COVID-19,” the governor said.
The infusion of cash is vital to stemming the crisis, said Ted Bassett, partner at the Worcester law firm of Mirick O’Connell, which specializes in elder law.
“More money needs to be funneled into these poor nursing homes,” Bassett said. “This is the battlefield, the front lines. If we’re not doing everything we can to get them more money for masks, for test kits, and for staff, there’s going to be more [outbreaks] at even the best nursing homes.”
Money for staff is a key part of the new round, including funds to set up hotels with infection control for workers who don’t want to go home during the crisis. Some nursing homes have already begun paying higher rates to front-line caregivers.
“Nursing facilities will use this funding to acquire PPE, implement infection control, and, most importantly, to give our dedicated staff across Massachusetts the heroes’ pay increases that they need and deserve,” Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, a trade group for nursing homes, said in a statement.
Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents health care workers at long-term care facilities, applauded Baker’s move. “Enhanced pay for caregivers, coupled with increased oversight to ensure a safe work environment, is imperative to maintain and recruit staff to sustain quality care for our state’s most vulnerable,” Tim Foley, executive vice president, said in a statement.
The new funds will also support temporary staffing at the state’s 386 nursing homes and 93 rest homes, many of which have lost workers to illness or fear. The state will be deploying 120 clinical response teams, each consisting of 10 nurses and certified nursing assistants, in emergency situations.
Backing those efforts will be a new infection control performance improvement center set up by the senior care association. It will work with the COVID-19 Policy Alliance, a group lead by MIT faculty, and Hebrew SeniorLife, a Harvard-affiliated nonprofit that runs senior care facilities in eastern Massachusetts. All nursing homes receiving funds will be required to make their performance data and use of the funds public in reports to the state that will be due in mid-year.
Nursing homes will undergo baseline audits during the first two weeks of May, using a 28-point infection control checklist, and will be audited regularly in the weeks afterward. They’ll be rated on how well they adhere to the state checklist.
John Hilliard of the Globe staff contributed to this story.