Colorado Investigates Whether National Guard Testing Spread Coronavirus In Nursing Home

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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Colorado National Guardsmen Airman First Class John Boyle (left) and Staff Seargent Bart Blumberg map out the Rodeway Inn on Zuni Street as it’s transformed into housing for people living in homelessness. April 15, 2020.

When the Colorado National Guard arrived at the Broomfield Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on April 22 to test residents and staff for COVID-19, the facility for elderly Coloradans had yet to have any residents or staff show symptoms of the disease.

Days after the testing, the disease was spreading uncontrolled among residents who had tested negative at the event. There are now 49 lab-confirmed cases at the facility and seven residents have died of complications from the virus.

Now, the state health department has begun to question whether the two events are related and if the testing actually triggered the outbreak.

“Two things can be true and be unrelated at the same time,” said Eric France, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. “You had a situation where we came in with the National Guard, they did this testing, and in the days following there were a lot of cases that occurred and expanded. It does require a pause and a look at the processes to be sure.”

Four residents and staff members who initially tested negative for COVID-19 on April 22 became symptomatic five days later. By May 2 an additional 18 residents and staff who had tested negative at the National Guard testing event had tested positive.

Though they do not have enough epidemiological evidence to determine whether the testing event caused the outbreak, CDPHE said specialists are reviewing ways to minimize contact among residents and staff at future testing sites.

The testing at the facility was part of an ongoing outbreak prevention effort by the state health department after a surge in infections and deaths among nursing home residents. In an email, a CDPHE spokesperson said that for future testing events, the agency has reduced the size of teams sent to care facilities.

Instead of a full testing team, the agency now sends teams of about 15 which advise the facility’s medical staff on how to test staff and residents themselves. The new strategy also allows CDPHE to test more facilities simultaneously. According to France, CDPHE has so far conducted more than 3,000 tests on asymptomatic staff and residents at 13 elder-care facilities.

The National Guard, Broomfield Public Health and Broomfield Mayor Patrick Quinn declined to comment and referred questions to CDPHE.

France said he did not have details on exactly how procedures used in the Broomfield testing could have possibly spread the disease. Based on the new procedures, it’s likely that officials suspect person-to-person contact — either among nursing home staff and residents or testers — as the possible cause.

Administrators with the nursing facility also declined to comment. Sean Duffy, a spokesman for the facility said, “we were totally supportive of the testing and the National Guard.”

Nursing homes and other elder care facilities have been major hotspots for COVID-19 cases and deaths in Colorado. According to state outbreak data released Wednesday, 651 residents in elder care facilities have died with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, that’s 61 percent of the state’s total deaths.

There are 6,083 suspected or confirmed cases among staff and residents in elder care facilities. At a Broomfield City Council meeting on Tuesday, Jason Vahling, the city and county public health director, reported that 18 of the county’s 21 COVID-19 deaths have occurred among residents of elder care facilities.

Expanding preventative testing at facilities without known outbreaks has become a priority for the state’s Residential Care task force. CDPHE plans to continue asymptomatic testing at large facilities without known outbreaks with the goal of stopping outbreaks before they start.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, more than 400 National Guard members have mobilized to assist the state with its emergency response. A group of nearly 70 specially trained guardsmen from the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield explosive Enhanced Response Force have conducted the testing in long-term care facilities.

“Our Colorado National Guard warriors are trained and equipped to fight the war on COVID-19,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen Mike Loh, in a release that announced the testing at the Broomfield facility and two others. “They are providing necessary capability and capacity to help our local and state partners to save lives in senior care facilities across our state.”

CDPHE is also contracting with Colorado State University to test workers and residents in 25 facilities on a weekly basis. Over the two-month contract, the university will perform 45,000 tests.

In the coming months, the state hopes to expand this testing even further to a point where staff in nursing homes can be tested twice a week to ensure that asymptomatic carriers do not enter the facilities.

“I'm hopeful there will be a future where these tests will be very common — very easy, very cheap — and can be done routinely because it's only through high levels of testing that we can keep the virus out of these nursing homes,” said France.