Katie Finn stays in virtual contact with her grandmother in nursing home.

Palm Springs Desert Sun

Plagued by some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks, skilled nursing facilities in California will now be expected to do more to prevent the spread of infectious diseases from spreading thanks to a bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday. 

AB-2644, which was introduced by Assemblymember Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, in February, aims to protect residents as well as health care workers by requiring additional staffing and increasing reporting requirements. It requires each facility to have a full-time staff member, or the equivalent, dedicated to infection prevention and control.

It also requires facilities to report each disease-related death to the California Department of Public Health within 24 hours, and requires the state tomake the total number of deaths available on its website weekly. 

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“The close living quarters in these facilities makes residents and health care workers extremely vulnerable to infectious diseases and we know that the use of best practices for infection control can reduce their chances of becoming ill and they deserve that protection,” Wood said in a statement earlier this summer. 

Skilled nursing facilities were already required to adopt and implement an antimicrobial stewardship policy in line with guidelines developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or other specified professional organizations, according to the legislative counsel’s digest.

But they were excluded from an existing law that required health facilities to report adverse events, including specified patient deaths, to the public health department within 24 hours. 

The move comes amid increased scrutiny amid the coronavirus pandemic. California has reported more than 800,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 15,000 virus-related deaths — fatalities in skilled nursing facilities account for just under 30% of the state’s total virus-related deaths. 

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Across California’s 1,223 skilled nursing facilities reporting COVID-19 data — 94.4% of them  — 4,457 residents had died from complications related to the virus, while a total of 25,991 residents had tested positive as of Tuesday. Health care workers associated with these facilities have also been affected — 19,492 had tested positive and 149 had died as of Tuesday. 

The new requirements mandate that data is reported in a matter that protects patient medical privacy and that, during a declared emergency, facilities notify residents and family members about cases of communicable diseases. 

Republican Senator Shannon Grove, the minority leader of the California State Senate who represents the southern Central Valley and parts of the high desert, including Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms, supported the bill.

“Seniors were not adequately served in state licensed skilled nursing facilities (SNF) at the beginning of this pandemic,” she tweeted Aug. 24, noting her vote in support of the bill. 

In San Bernardino County, 1,747 skilled nursing facility residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 260 have died due to virus-related complications. In Riverside County, 1,402 skilled nursing facility residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 192 have reportedly died. 

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The new law also mandates that skilled nursing facilities cannot prevent a long-term care ombudsman from entering a facility. 

“The long-term care ombudsmen are there to protect residents, some of whom have no family and few, if any, visitors,” Wood said. “These folks are our most vulnerable and we need to do everything we can to make sure that their stay in a skilled nursing facility, however long, protects them the best way we know how.”

Maria Sestito covers aging and the senior population in Coachella Valley for The Desert Sun. She is also a Report for America corps member and new to the desert. Please say “hello” via [email protected] or @RiaSestito.

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