COVID-19 drives nursing homes to overhaul infection control efforts


The toll that COVID-19 has taken on nursing homes and their postacute and long-term care residents has a multilayered backstory involving underresourced organizational structures, inherent susceptibilities, minimally trained infection prevention staff, variable abilities to isolate and quarantine large numbers of patients and residents, and a lack of governmental support.

“Nursing homes have been trying their best to combat this pandemic using the best infection control procedures they have, but blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs,” said Joseph G. Ouslander, MD, professor of geriatric medicine at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, which has teaching affiliations with three senior communities.

Nursing home leaders are debating how to best use testing to guide transmission-based precautions and isolation strategies and how to keep residents safe while allowing some socialization after months of conflicting guidance from public health officials (on testing and on sites of care for patients discharged from the hospital, for instance), with a lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies, and with nursing home resident deaths estimated to account for at least one-quarter of the total COVID-19–related mortality in the United States.

“COVID is not going away [over the next couple of years],” said Michael Wasserman, MD, medical director of the Eisenberg Village at the Los Angeles Jewish Home and president of the California Association of Long-Term Care Medicine.

Dr. Michael Wasserman, Medical Director, Eisenberg Village, Los Angeles Jewish Home

Dr. Michael Wasserman

Dr. Wasserman and other experts in both long-term care and infectious disease said in interviews that, through the rest of the pandemic and beyond, nursing homes need the following:

  • Full-time, well-trained “infection preventionists” – infection prevention managers, in essence – who can lead improvements in emergency preparedness and infection prevention and control (IPC)
  • Medical directors who are well qualified and engaged
  • A survey/inspection process that is educational and not solely punitive
  • More resources and attention to structural reform

“If this pandemic doesn’t create significant change in the nursing home industry, nothing ever will,” Dr. Wasserman said.

Prepandemic experience

When Ghinwa Dumyati, MD, began working with nursing homes in early March to prevent and contain COVID-19 outbreaks, her focus was on PPE.

Nursing home staff were intimately familiar with standard precautions, and many had used contact precautions to prevent transmission of infections like Clostridioides difficile and Candida auris, as well as droplet precautions for influenza. With the threat of COVID-19, nursing homes “had a brand-new requirement to do both contact and droplet precautions – with a new need for eye protection – and in some situations, respiratory precautions with N95 masks,” said Dr. Dumyati, professor of medicine and director of communicable disease surveillance and prevention at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical Center. “And on top of that, [staff] had to learn to conserve and reuse PPE.”

Staff had not been fit-tested for use of N95 respirators, she noted. “The only time an N95 was used in the nursing home prior to COVID-19,” she said, “was for a suspected tuberculosis patient [before hospital admission].”

Similarly, nursing homes had experience in quarantining units to prevent transmission of illnesses like influenza or norovirus – keeping residents in their rooms with no visitations or social activity, for instance – but never did they have to arrange “massive movements of residents to completely new units or parts of a unit,” said Dr. Dumyati, who also has led hospital and nursing home collaborative programs in Rochester to beat back C. difficile, and is now helping to formulate COVID-19 recommendations and guidance for members of AMDA – The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care.

As the SARS-CoV-2 virus began its spread through the United States, efforts to strengthen IPC programs in nursing homes in Rochester and elsewhere had been focused largely on multidrug resistant organisms (MDROs) and antibiotic stewardship – not on pandemic preparedness.

Reducing antibiotic use had become a national priority, and a 2016 rule by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services required nursing homes to develop, over a 3-year period, an IPC program that included an antibiotic stewardship component and employment of a trained infection preventionist on at least a half-time basis. Emergency preparedness (e.g., having alternate energy sources for a facility) was also included in the rule, but it was only in 2019 when CMS updated its “Requirements for Participation” rule to stipulate that emergency preparedness include planning for “emerging infectious diseases.”

Patricia Stone, RN, PhD,  of the Center for Health Policy at the Columbia University School of Nursing Courtesy Dr. Patricia Stone

Dr. Patricia Stone

“The 2016 regulations came about because infections were so problematic in nursing homes,” especially urinary tract infections, C. difficile, and drug-resistant infections, said Patricia Stone, PhD, RN, of the Center for Health Policy at the Columbia University School of Nursing, New York, who has published widely on infection prevention and control in nursing homes.

An analysis of IPC practices in 2014 and in 2018 suggests that the IPC-focused rules were helping, mainly with antibiotic stewardship programs but also with respect to some of the practices aimed at outbreak control, such as having policies in place for grouping infected residents together, instructing infected staff to stay home, and quarantining units on which outbreaks occur, Dr. Stone said. Policies for confining residents to rooms were reported by approximately 74% of nursing homes in 2014, and by approximately 87% in 2018, for instance. Overall, nursing homes were “getting better policies in place,” she said. The analysis compared data from two cross-sectional surveys of nursing homes conducted in 2014 and 2018 (945 and 888 facilities, respectively).

Nursing homes “have a long way to go,” however, with respect to the training of infection preventionists, Dr. Stone said. In 2014, her analysis shows, almost 65% of infection preventionists had no specific infection-control training and less than 3% were Certified in Infection Control (CIC) – a credential awarded by the Certification Board of Infection Control & Epidemiology. Of the 35% who had some form of official training, most completed state or local training courses.

The numbers improved slightly in 2018, with 7% of nursing homes reporting their infection preventionists had the highest-level certification, and 44% reporting that their infection preventionists had no specific infection-control training. Research has shown that infection-control training of any kind has a “strong effect” on IPC-related outcomes. While not demonstrated in research thus far, it seems plausible that “facilities with certified [infection preventionists] will have better processes in place,” said Dr. Stone, whose research has documented the need for more monitoring of staff compliance with hand-washing and other IPC procedures.

Infection preventionists in nursing homes typically have been directors of nursing or assistant directors of nursing who fold IPC responsibilities into a multitude of other responsibilities. Before the 2016 rules, some smaller facilities hired off-site consultants to do the job.

CMS upped the ante after several months of COVID-19, recommending in mid-May that nursing homes assign at least one individual with training in infection control “to provide on-site management of the IPC program.” The infection preventionists should be a “full-time role” in facilities that have more than 100 residents, the CMS guidance said. (Prior to the pandemic, CMS issued proposed regulations in 2019 that would modify the time an infection preventionist must devote to a facility from “part time” to “sufficient time.”)

However, neither the 2016 rule nor the most recent guidance on infection preventionists define the length or content of training.

Dr. Swati Gaur, hair of the Infection Advisory Committee of AMDA, and a certified medical director of two skilled nursing facilities in Gainesville, Ga.

Dr. Swati Gaur

Swati Gaur, MD, chair of the Infection Advisory Committee of AMDA and a certified medical director of two skilled nursing facilities in Gainesville, Ga., said that the pandemic “has really started to crystallize some of the limitations of having a very vague role, not just in terms of what an [infection preventionists] does [in the nursing home] but also the training,”

Fortunately, Dr. Gaur said, when SARS-CoV-2 struck, she had just transitioned her facilities’ designated infection preventionist to work full-time on the role. She had worked closely with her infection preventionist on IPC issues but wishes she had arranged for more rigorous independent training. “The role of the [infection preventionist] is huge and complicated,” now involving employee health, contract tracing, cohorting, isolation, and compliance with precautions and use of PPE, in addition to surveillance, data reporting, and communication with public health officials, she said.

“Facilities are finding out now that [the infection preventionist] cannot be an afterthought. And it won’t end with COVID. We have other respiratory illnesses like flu and other viruses that we struggle with all the time,” said Dr. Gaur, who is working alongside Dr. Dumyati and two other long-term care experts on AMDA’s COVID-19 guidance. The nursing homes that Dr. Gaur directs are part of the Northeast Georgia Health Care System and together include 271 beds.


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