More nursing homes are waiting longer for COVID-19 test results for residents and staffers, according to federal data, making the fight against record numbers of omicron cases even harder.
The double whammy of slower turnaround times for lab-based PCR tests and a shortage of rapid antigen tests has strained facilities where quickly identifying infections is crucial for keeping a highly vulnerable population safe.
A KHN analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services finds that 25% of nursing homes that sent tests to a lab waited an average of three or more days for results as of Jan. 16. In early December, that number was 12%.
At Lutheran Life Villages in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the long wait for results renders PCR tests "useless," President Alex Kiefer said. "If we send somebody off to get a PCR test, sometimes it takes two days for them to get an appointment. And then it takes two, three, four days to get a read."
So Kiefer's organization mainly relies on rapid antigen tests. But on Jan. 12, long-term care sites in the state were alerted to shortages of Abbott Laboratories' rapid BinaxNOW antigen tests, according to the Indiana Department of Health. Lutheran Life Villages was using 125 rapid tests a day, including on vaccinated people. Now as transmission rates remain high, "we are scrounging to try to find enough," Kiefer said. He called the state shipments sporadic. "The scariest thing is, if we get to a point where we can't get those, we will have to rely on PCRs, and the timing of that is just really challenging," Kiefer said.
Federal officials require the country's 15,000 nursing homes to submit data on COVID in their facilities; KHN's analysis of testing speeds is based on reports of turnaround times in early December and mid-January from about 10,900 homes. Nursing home residents have high vaccination rates — more than 87% are fully inoculated, and 67% have received boosters. Still, experts warn, delays can pose significant safety risks. For one, in the time it takes to receive results, outbreaks can emerge undetected. And with omicron, breakthrough infections appear to cause more severe symptoms for older people.
This many nursing homes haven't waited three or more days for test results since March 2021, CMS data show.