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Advocates push for rapid testing at long-term care facilities

By Nadia Ramligan, Tennessee Public News Service

Advocates are asking Gov. Bill Lee to supply Tennessee’s long-term care facilities with rapid coronavirus testing, with the goal of being able to reunite residents with their families faster.

Since early spring, long-term care facilities across the state have closed their doors to visitors because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rachel Blackhurst, public policy and advocacy director with the Alzheimer’s Association’s Tennessee Chapter, said because social isolation among people with dementia can speed decline and worsen cognitive abilities, having access to rapid-turnaround testing is critical for residents, staff and visitors.

She added that individuals with dementia may not be able to use Zoom or other video technologies or be responsive over the phone.

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“And while Tennessee has actually done a really, really good job with mobilizing testing and requiring weekly testing for facilities, we’ve seen a decline in how quickly those results come back, and it hasn’t helped with opening facilities up for visitation,” Blackhurst said.

Nearly half of the state’s nursing home residents are living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and among older adults in assisted living and other residential facilities, 42% have some form of dementia. Tennessee has 700 long-term care facilities.

A New York Times database found at the start of August, around 40% of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths occurred among long-term care residents or staff, and that number is on the rise.

Erin Drummond’s father lives in a long-term care facility, and she said she hasn’t been able to see him in months.

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“My dad’s on hospice care right now, and we don’t know how long he’ll be around. So it’s hard to just not be able to go in and be with him in these last moments of life,” Drummond said.

She said she hopes her fellow Tennessee residents will take precautions to curb the spread of the coronavirus so that facilities can safely reopen.

“If the cases continue to rise, these restrictions still stay in place,” she said. “It’s really hard to go months without seeing somebody that is at the end of their life. So that would be what I would like, for everybody just in general to really think about other people and high-risk people and how that affects them.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social isolation is associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia as well as an increased risk for premature death, heart disease, stroke and other conditions.

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