Universal testing program could break chain of COVID-19 in nursing homes, assisted living centers

CAMBRIDGE — A first-of-its kind universal testing program could be a new strategy in breaking the chain of COVID-19 transmission at skilled nursing homes and assisted living centers.

The pilot program has been testing all residents and employees at the seven different skilled nursing and assisted living facilities in Cambridge whether they have symptoms or not. It has already revealed 203 confirmed cases, with some results still pending and more tests set to be conducted on Friday.

Elsewhere in the state of Massachusetts, widescale testing is only happening at skilled nursing and assisted living facilities where there have been confirmed cases.

“With expanded availability of testing, we can start to do more prospective testing like this, and I think that will be important going forward,” said Niall Lennon, institute scientist and senior director of translational genomics and product development at the Broad Institute, a biomedical research center affiliated with Harvard and MIT. Every resident and employee will be tested twice.

Of the 203 positive cases connected to the new program, 170 are residents of the facilities. The rest of the confirmed cases are employees.

“This kind of testing does offer new opportunities to learn about the spread of the virus. What are the routes of that infection getting into a facility, how quickly it spreads within a facility and the outcome that the facility sees,” explained Lennon.

The Cambridge Public Health Department has been working with the facilities to separate those who have tested positive from those who have tested negative.

“If we don’t test people universally in these kinds of settings, the virus could spread very quickly,” said Dr. Michael Gibson with Harvard Medical School. “The earlier we know about an infection in one of these facilities, the quicker we can stop it.”

The Cambridge Public Health Department has not said if the positive results came from all of the seven facilities.

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