IOWA CITY — More than 200 nursing homes across Iowa, including facilities based in the Corridor, each have received thousands of dollars in federal incentive payments as a reward for successful infection-control measures against the novel coronavirus.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded nearly $23 million to 262 long-term facilities in Iowa.
Among those payment recipients are two Johnson County-based long-term care facilities that have managed to keep their residents from becoming infected with COVID-19 — a success they attribute to aggressive and frequent testing, honest communication with staff and some luck.
“I can’t say facilities didn’t have a break in their system, but there are facilities that have definitely done what we have done and they still had outbreaks,” said Andrew Maas, administrator for Briarwood Health Care Center in Iowa City. “So there’s definitely luck involved as well.”
More than 9,000 nursing homes and other long-term health facilities nationwide received $523 million earlier this month from the federal incentive program, part of $2 billion in performance-based federal support for nursing homes grappling with the pandemic.
This was the second round of performance-based incentive payment allocations announced by the Trump administration in early September, rewarding facilities that were able to show a drop in infections and deaths between September and October.
Though the more than 9,000 nursing homes that received federal incentive payments make up 69 percent of the nation’s total long-term care facilities, Midwestern states including Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois are those taking in the most money. Illinois, for example, is receiving $41 million total for 400 nursing homes — a share larger per capita than the average state.
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Long-term care facilities were measured against the county-level positivity rate per capita and their ability to keep COVID-19 infection rates and mortalities low among residents, according to Health and Human Services guidelines.
As of last week, nearly 150 current outbreaks at long-term care facilities were reported across the state, with more than 5,900 residents infected by the coronavirus. In total, more than 1,100 residents have died in connection with COVID-19, according to state data.
Briarwood has reported no infections among its residents, but has had 12 staff members test positive over the past several months — infections that never overlapped with one another, according to Maas.
Briarwood, a 62-bed facility, received around $45,000. Oaknoll Retirement Residence, a certified 48-unit senior living center based in Iowa City, also was rewarded through this program with more than $40,000, Administrator Kim Bergen-Jackson said.
Though there were reported cases among its staff, Oaknoll also has not reported a single infection in residents across its facilities. Most of the staff cases were asymptomatic and were caught only through routine testing, Bergen-Jackson said.
Staff at Briarwood routinely are tested for COVID-19 twice per week, a practice Maas implemented even before it was a recommendation from state officials earlier this year.
Maas said he has enough rapid tests on hand to test staff members every two weeks through the end of February. Because of that, Maas said he’s “not afraid to use them.”
New admissions to the facility are tested every 48 hours for eight days, and any nonstaff personnel who enter the building — including maintenance workers — are tested beforehand.
“We want to be able to prevent it from getting to the rest of the residents,” he said.
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Many employees at both Iowa City facilities are college students, and Maas and Bergen-Jackson said they’ve employed a technique that asks for honesty from staff about their comings and goings without fear of being reprimanded.
Both administrators said if a staff member tells them they may have been exposed, but are unsure if they’re infected, that individual would be asked to take extra precautions or even stay home out of an abundance of caution.
“That has been something that we’ve taken extremely seriously,” Maas said.
Bergen-Jackson said she’s focused much of her efforts since the beginning of the pandemic disseminating best practices from public health officials and other long-term care facility administrators, and implementing them within Oaknoll.
Educating staff also has been key. However, Bergen-Jackson said facilities in Johnson County may have had better luck with staff who take public health measures seriously.
“There are people in parts of the state who don’t believe COVID-19 is real. It’s not something I have to deal with, but it is a real thing,” Bergen-Jackson said.
But the officials say their approaches are not anything that’s vastly different from other long-term care facilities. Other facilities can practice an abundance of caution and still experience an outbreak.
“We don’t have a magic bullet. I do think it is a little luck,” Bergen-Jackson said.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.
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