Less COVID testing of nursing home staff linked with higher resident death rates

April 4, 2023 – Nursing homes in the U.S. that conducted more COVID-19 testing of their staff early in the pandemic experienced fewer COVID cases and deaths among residents, according to a study co-authored by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Michael Barnett.

The study was published March 23 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Barnett, associate professor of health policy and management, conducted the study with colleagues from the University of Rochester Medical Center and the Anderson School of Management at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Using data on tests, infections, and deaths reported by nursing homes to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the researchers found that if nursing homes had conducted 1.1 million more staff tests per week—one additional test per staff member per week across all facilities—427 lives would have been saved across the nation each week between November 2020 and mid-January 2021, when vaccines were not yet available and nursing home outbreaks surged.

In nursing homes where staff were tested most often, there were 26% fewer resident deaths compared with nursing homes that didn’t test as much, the study found.

In a March 22 Washington Post article, Barnett said that the study shows that a stronger communications and logistical effort by government leaders, regional health systems, and nursing homes would have prevented infections and saved thousands of lives.

“The messaging around how to test and who to test and why and how often was very confusing for nursing homes,” he said. “It was a big mess.” He cited problems including long turnaround times for PCR test results and a poorly organized rollout of rapid antigen tests for nursing homes.

Read the Washington Post article: More testing of nursing home staff would have reduced covid-19 deaths, study says

Read the study: Covid-19 Surveillance Testing and Resident Outcomes in Nursing Homes