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The Maine Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday said it’s implementing emergency rules to require nursing homes to notify residents, their family members, employees and others of any potential coronavirus case in the facility.
The requirement comes as more than 25 percent of Maine’s confirmed cases of the virus have occurred in long-term care facilities, and more than half of the state’s 51 deaths from the virus have been residents in nursing facilities experiencing outbreaks.
A new survey of the state’s 93 nursing facilities conducted by the department found almost half of those facilities share staff across facilities or units, heightening the risk of infection if infected staff move among facilities.
Maine has seen six long-term care facilities so far experience outbreaks — when three or more people in a facility contract the coronavirus.
Those experiencing the largest outbreaks have varied in how communicative they’ve been with residents and family members about the spread of the virus within their walls and steps they are taking to prevent new infections. While the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention sent guidelines in March on how to handle cases and communications about those cases, the agency did not have the power to enforce those.
The rules announced Tuesday are enforceable by the Department of Health and Human Services’ licensing staff, who regularly inspect nursing facilities. The new rules also give the department additional powers to conduct inspections and require that facilities continue to restrict outside visitors, limit residents’ departures from facilities and establish safe ways for residents to communicate with family members. When nursing homes confirm new cases, they’re required to consult with the Maine CDC on next steps within 24 hours.
The state rules come shortly after the federal government said it would start requiring that nursing facilities inform residents and their designated family representatives within 12 hours of confirming coronavirus cases and provide weekly updates on what the facilities are doing to contain outbreaks.
The department’s announcement of the rules happened in conjunction with Gov. Janet Mills’ announcement of a reopening of the state’s economy in four stages. Nursing home residents are particularly vulnerable to complications from the virus because of their age and the likelihood that they have underlying health conditions, and they’re at high risk of contracting the disease because of their close living quarters.
According to the state’s survey, statewide occupancy of nursing facilities was at 85 percent in mid-April and 80 percent were accepting new residents, with some requiring that new residents test negative for COVID-19.
Other measures in the emergency rules are designed to prevent infection or decrease cases. All individuals entering a facility must be screened for possible infection, and homes must stock 72 hours’ worth of personal protective equipment at all times and report on their stock to the Maine CDC. All staff who work in multiple facilities must be given protective equipment.
The rules also require facilities to have written crisis staffing plans outlining recruitment plans that do not rely on the National Guard or government resources as primary or secondary sources.
Most facilities reported challenges with maintaining staff levels in the state survey.
Watch: Should you remove loved ones from care facilities during the outbreak?