HARLINGEN — City health officials are proposing a directive aimed at safeguarding nursing homes from coronavirus outbreaks.

Dr. Michael Mohun, the city’s health officer, is proposing requiring nursing homes test patients for coronavirus before admission then isolating them before conducting second tests.

The proposal’s draft copy states the protocol would “require testing 24 to 72 hours before admitting patients into your facility, and once the patient has been admitted, (the facility) must complete a five-day observation period (and) after isolation is completed perform a second test before moving the patient into general admission areas.”

As part of the proposed directive, hospitals will be required to test patients for the COVID-19 virus before transferring them to facilities such as nursing homes, Josh Ramirez, the city’s health director, said Thursday.

“If the patient is in the hospital, it would require the hospital to test the patient unless the nursing home provides the hospital with a test (kit),” Ramirez said.

The proposal would also nullify Mohun’s previous order prohibiting nursing homes from sharing health care workers, Ramirez said, adding nursing homes would be required to take health care workers’ temperatures and ensure they wear personal protective equipment when entering and working in nursing homes.

Ramirez said the proposal would nullify Mohun’s previous order to help nursing homes better manage their current staffing shortages.

The proposal now awaits City Attorney Ricardo Navarro’s approval.

At City Hall, Ramirez said Mohun’s proposal wasn’t issued earlier because test kits had been limited.

More recently, health officials realized COVID-19-positive patients who didn’t display symptoms could transmit the virus, he said.

Ramirez said the proposal would lead to testing of asymptomatic patients.

“Early on, we didn’t know asymptomatics could transmit,” he said. “As the virus evolved, some patients asymptomatic could still be able to spread the virus. This virus is so unpredictable, we’re still learning how it works. It’s so different from others.”

Hospital working with nursing homes

At Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen, Dr. Christopher Romero said the hospital is working with nursing homes.

“Over the course of this pandemic, we have been in communication with the local skilled nursing facilities and the health department to coordinate how to best manage the care of all patients during this crisis,” Romero, an internal medicine specialist who serves as the hospital’s physician adviser, said.

“We’re dedicated to continue to work with our local health departments and regional partners to ensure the best possible and safest care that we can provide,” he said. “Like so many things in this pandemic, guidelines and protocols change as we learn more and we will continue to monitor for best practice recommendations and guidelines for the care of our community.”

Nursing homes provide protocol

At the city’s nursing homes, administrators such as Jeff Tait said the proposal would provide a second line of defense against the virus.

“I am very impressed and happy,” Tait, administrator at Retama Manor, said. “The risk of contaminating other patients has been reduced substantially. We want to elevate our checks and balances toward the care in nursing homes. I’m glad we’re making progress.”

Tait said the nursing home has developed a similar protocol.

“That’s a protocol we have already at our facility,” he said. “We are providing it because it isn’t part of protocol to test prior to discharge. If you didn’t have symptoms, the protocol was not to test you. At Retama Manor, we thought it was necessary to assure the safety of patients.”

At Windsor Atrium and the Harlingen Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Brooke Ladner, parent company Regency Integrated Health Services’ senior vice president, said the nursing homes have developed similar protocol.

“Regency Integrated Health Services currently asks that all hospitals test patients for COVID-19 before referring them to one of our facilities,” she stated.

“If it is not the hospital’s policy to do so due to the patient not having symptoms, the patient can be admitted to our facility but will be placed into our intake area in a private room and tested for COVID-19 as tests are available. We believe that testing is the best way to identify new cases and protect the health and safety of our residents and staff.”

At Veranda Rehabilitation and Healthcare, Administrator Jason Hess stated the nursing home tests hospital patients prior to admission.

“Generally speaking, testing prior to admission will likely not change our approach to new admits from the hospital,” he stated. “Veranda intends to continue to follow the current guidance from the CDC with respect to managing new admissions.”

In April, a county investigation found a health care worker carried the coronavirus into Veranda Rehabilitation and Healthcare before taking it to Windsor Atrium.

As of Wednesday, 63 residents and 34 employees have tested positive at Veranda, while 11 have died, the press release stated.

Meanwhile, at Windsor Atrium 61 residents and 39 employees have tested positive while 16 have died, the press release stated.