The Kern County Board of Supervisors received good news about local skilled nursing facilities during its Tuesday meeting.
County staff reported that widespread “gaping holes” in infection control measures that had allowed coronavirus to spread within skilled nursing facilities in the early months of the pandemic have largely been closed.
Early on in the pandemic, Public Health Services raised the alarm over the potential for COVID-19 to spread throughout the 19 facilities in Kern County that care for elderly or disabled individuals. The virus soon proved those officials right by spreading rapidly to 17 nursing homes, infecting 498 residents and 406 healthcare workers as of late August. COVID-19 has so far contributed to the death of 58 skilled nursing home residents, or 20 percent of the county’s death count.
Fearing the spread of coronavirus may impact the county’s ability to reopen businesses, and concerned for the residents living inside impacted facilities, supervisors devoted considerable resources toward identifying problems within local nursing homes and testing workers for the virus.
In total, Kern Public Health tested 2,477 individuals at 13 skilled nursing facilities and distributed 40,095 N95 masks, along with other personal protective equipment, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Supervisors also hired consultant Jared Leavitt to work directly with nursing homes trying to comply with state coronavirus regulations. More than a month after being brought on, Leavitt said many of the issues identified by the county had been addressed.
“Because of your leadership, the leadership of (Public Health Services Director) Matt Constantine and (Assistant Director) Brynn Carrigan, Kern County’s skilled nursing facility residents are safer today than at the beginning of the outbreak,” he told supervisors during the meeting.
Still, officials worried that once county funds for nursing home oversight evaporates, the facilities will return to the lax regulatory environment that existed prior to the pandemic.
“While we have seen improvements, we still have a lot of work to do in our SNFs,” Carrigan said. “If our engagement within these facilities sunsets, infection control procedures will become lax, which will put these most vulnerable members of our community at significant risk.”
Although Kern Public Health has been heavily involved in local skilled nursing facilities since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the department has no regulatory authority. Only the state can compel nursing homes to change aspects of their service through fines and other punishments.
“There’s going to come a time when we are going to have to hand this off to the state,” Supervisor Mike Maggard said. “But it worries me that if we weren’t doing this, what oversight and regulation would there be?”
Supervisors voted 4-0, with Supervisor Mick Gleason absent, to develop new methods to track the quality of care at skilled nursing facilities in the future, and better inform the public about a facility’s track record. County staff was directed to return with recommendations for the board to take up at a later meeting.
“The need for these facilities is going to continue to grow, and I think that this would be a good time for us to take a good look and see if we in Kern County want to be much more diligent and provide a much better system and environment for our elderly than other counties have,” Supervisor Zack Scrivner said. “Perhaps we can really show some leadership.”