A group of nursing home medical directors says Virginia Department of Health rules are delaying COVID-19 testing for the state’s most vulnerable residents, putting the people most likely to die from the virus at risk.

Six doctors who manage more than a dozen long-term care centers sent a letter to state officials Wednesday calling for change and voicing their frustrations about a requirement that the flu and other respiratory infections be ruled out before a COVID-19 test is provided. That process takes up to a week.

“The Department of Health has been misaligning resources to more healthy people rather than the people at most risk from bad outcomes,” said Dr. James Wright, medical director of Canterbury Rehab and Our Lady of Hope in Henrico County and the Memory Center in Chesterfield County.

Wright, who signed the letter, said mortality rates for those 80 and older who become infected can approach 15%, making the need for testing even greater. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Nearly 30 of Washington state’s 40 deaths have come from the Life Care Center of Kirkland, which reported an outbreak last week.

The physicians’ concerns come as Virginia recorded positive infections this week for people living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities:

  • A man in his mid-80s who lives at the Westminster Canterbury retirement community along the Henrico-Richmond line tested positive Tuesday after returning from Florida early last week.
  • A man at The Kensington Falls Church, an assisted living and memory care facility in Fairfax County, tested positive and has been in isolation since developing symptoms Saturday, officials announced Thursday.

Wright said one of the facilities he works for, Canterbury Rehab, has four patients with COVID-19-like symptoms awaiting official tests from the Department of Health. Two of those patients completed all of the preliminary screenings to rule out other possibilities over a week ago, he said.

The residents have been isolated in a wing of the facility, but Wright said the state needs to make changes. He called the department’s decision to prioritize resources elsewhere a “slap in the face” to long-term care providers.

A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health did not return a request for comment Thursday.

Virginia health officials have asked anyone 65 or older or with chronic health conditions to self-quarantine.

Local retirement community representatives say they are taking pre-emptive measures to curb the spread.

Sunrise Senior Living in the Tuckahoe area of Henrico is limiting staffing to essential positions, such as nurses and caretakers, and screening workers for COVID-19 symptoms before each shift, spokeswoman Nicole Vasile said in a statement.

“Sunrise is taking extra precautions — beyond our existing infection control and emergency preparedness programs — to help prevent the spread of the virus,” Vasile said.

Lucy Corr, a 75-dwelling facility in Chesterfield, announced Tuesday that it would prohibit outside visitors. On Wednesday, staff notified residents that the community’s Adult Day Center would close for a minimum of two weeks.

Social gatherings of more than 10 people have been banned by Gov. Ralph Northam.

Others, such as Henrico-based Pinnacle Living, which manages five communities across the state including Cedarfield in western Henrico and Hermitage Richmond, outlined additional steps Monday, before the Westminster case was confirmed, including canceling group activities, suspending housekeeping services and canceling non-emergency medical services.

Westminster instituted a complete lockdown and self-quarantine after the confirmed case of a resident there on Tuesday. Gayle Haglund, the facility’s vice president of resource development, said it has been challenging but residents understand the measure.

For now, there are no signs the virus has spread, Haglund said.

snorthrop@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6023

Twitter: @northrop_samuel

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