The White House
The White House (Credit: Caroline Purser / Getty Images)

The White House has made long-term care facilities a key element of its focus on preventing a winter surge of COVID-19.

The Biden administration announced Thursday a COVID-19 Winter Preparedness Plan to target efforts on making vaccinations, testing and treatments more widely available. Part of that plan includes a focus on the “highest-risk” Americans, including residents of congregate care facilities, by expanding the pool of providers able to administer COVID-19 vaccines and distributing rapid testing kits to communities.

The document does not specifically mention senior living communities such as assisted living communities, although it does specifically mention “nursing homes and long-term care facilities” as well as “Department of Housing and Urban Development-assisted rental housing properties serving seniors.”

The federal government intends to release a winter playbook for long-term care facilities that includes recommendations for reducing serious illness, preventing hospitalizations and deaths, and minimizing disruptions to communities.

Among the ideas being floated are educating and offering long-term care residents an updated COVID-19 shot, offering treatments to residents who test positive, and improving indoor air quality.

LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said the aging services association is “all in.” LeadingAge is undertaking a range of initiatives and partnerships with the Biden administration to support the plan.

“We are focused on what matters most and using our strong connections and relationships to fight for members and the people they serve,” Sloan said in a statement. “This winter, in every setting and community type — from nursing homes and senior communities, including affordable housing for low-income older adults, to home- and community-based services, including hospice, home health and Programs for All Inclusive Care for the Elderly — we’re committed to sharing facts and messaging to promote vaccine and booster uptake, holding clinics and ensuring access to tests.”

Maggie Elehwany, Argentum senior vice president of public affairs, told McKnight’s Senior Living that the association supports efforts to get more Americans vaccinated and boosted, but would appreciate “a greater focus on the population that was and remains the most vulnerable to COVID — seniors.”

Noting that three-fourths of COVID-19 deaths have occurred — and continue to occur — in adults aged 65 or more years, she said Argentum supports efforts that prioritize older adults, such as the Federal Pharmacy Partnership program.

“We also remain disappointed that much of the funding for these efforts was taken from the Provider Relief Fund,” Elehwany said. “Argentum has long argued that assisted living frontline caregivers received far too little relief from this fund and believe that any remaining funds should be equitably distributed to assisted living frontline caregivers.”

Increasing vaccination coverage on all fronts

To help with vaccinations, the federal government is expanding the pool of providers that can administer COVID-19 vaccinations. The Department of Health and Human Services also will help states launch teams and partner with state Quality Improvement Organizations, home health agencies and emergency medical technicians to deliver vaccines to long-term care residents.

In response to the industry’s call for an “all hands on deck” approach, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra also called on hospitals to vaccinate unvaccinated patients — or ensure patients are up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccinations — before discharging them, especially if they are heading to a long-term care facility.

Encouraging hospitals to vaccinate patients prior to discharge will be “extremely helpful in accelerating our ongoing efforts,” David Gifford, MD, chief medical officer for the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living, told McKnight’s Senior Living

Gifford added that he looks forward to the winter playbook and hopes it “reinforces key strategies we’ve been promoting to long-term care facilities for months to help reduce respiratory viral infections.”

Expanding access to testing

In expanding access to free COVID-19 testing options, the plan calls for distributing rapid testing kits to long-term care facilities, community health centers, rural health clinics, schools and other locations. 

Free at-home tests also will be distributed at more than 6,500 affordable housing properties operated by HUD. LeadingAge is partnering with HUD and HHS on the launch of a test kit portal for affordable senior housing members to order test kits in bulk for distribution to residents.

“The COVID testing portal is a vital resource that will help to alleviate residents’ challenges with test access and payment, and also protect them and their communities against serious illness and viral spread this winter,” said Thomas Tsai, MD, testing and treatment coordinator on the White House COVID-19 Response Team.

LeadingAge said it will continue partnering with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention on Vaccine Education and Access Programs. The association will update its “Care FULLY” COVID-19 vaccine campaign for direct care professionals, which debuted in March, to include messaging to increase staff vaccine and booster shots.