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Breaking down state's efforts to test long-term health care patients for coronavirus

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Posted at 6:02 PM, May 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-13 23:19:32-04

PHOENIX — As the White House pressures states to improve testing and transparency, the Arizona Department of Health Services director announced the state will begin widespread coronavirus testing inside some long-term care facilities.

“The White House announced that they would like all of these facilities that are Medicare certified to be tested within the next two weeks,” Dr. Cara Christ said during a Tuesday press conference. “So our team has been working on that plan and this has been our top priority.”

Christ said the state will initially begin testing at 147 facilities for all residents and staff — a total of more than 20,000 people.

Officials didn’t give a timeline or state if they planned to meet the federal government’s desired deadline. But a leading industry representative with knowledge of the state’s plan said tests would begin later this week or early next week.

“I think it’s going to be over two weeks. But I think we’re going to be pretty close,” said Dave Voepel, CEO of the Arizona Health Care Association. “They’re going to triage more or less the testing. So you look at hotspots…The state will be looking at those and gearing the tests toward those.”

The 147 facilities that will receive initial testing are skilled nursing homes. It’s a type of facility that makes up a small percentage of the long-term care facilities in Arizona.

Voepel said there are roughly 2,800 to 3,000 facilities that fall within the definition. The most common being assisted living homes.

There is no clear timeline yet for when those other facilities would also receive testing.

“So it’s one step at a time right now,” Voepel said. “We know this is phase one. And our next goal is going to concentrate on assisted living.”

Long-term care facilities are at high risk for COVID-19 outbreaks.

In the Valley, county data shows that 70% of all deaths are from residents of long-term care.

Statewide, the Arizona Department of Health Services refuses to release the locations and names of facilities that have COVID-19 cases and deaths unlike dozens of other states.

ABC15 and other media outlets have filed a lawsuit against the state to release the information.

Governor Doug Ducey has bristled against criticism that the state hasn’t released enough information about long-term care facilities. He denied that Arizona was not releasing data on the facilities like other states are.

The state has hired two outside law firms to defend against the media organizations’ lawsuit. A trial could come later this month.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at