Nursing homes' pleas for protective gear will be answered, Mike Pence tells governors

The administration will send aid directly to nursing homes.

Vice President Mike Pence told governors Friday that the federal government will be answering the pleas that have been coming for weeks from American nursing homes that are short on vital protective equipment during the battle against the novel coronavirus.

Pence said the administration would be sending personal protective equipment, known as PPE, directly to nursing home facilities, a first sign of that the federal response will expand its efforts to supply desperately-needed masks, gloves and gowns beyond hospitals and to other hard-hit facilities.

“We are literally contracting to ship direct what amounts to PPE packages to all 15,000-plus nursing homes in the country. And it’s going to be a supply for a specific set of weeks,” Pence said, according to an audio recording of the video teleconference call obtained by ABC News.

The new effort marks a departure from the current strategy.

The agency charged with monitoring nursing care, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, so far has been directing states to allocate some of their supply of PPE to nursing homes, and in turn, nursing homes that were struggling were told to work with state and local leaders to acquire the necessary protective materials.

The vice president said a more formal announcement on the plan is coming in a day or two. The shipments would only be sent to nursing homes, and not assisted living facilities. Nursing homes provide medical care to residents, whereas assisted living facilities generally provide personal care.

“The 15,400-plus registered nursing homes are gonna get a direct shipment of gloves, surgical masks, gowns, eye protection for their staff directly to their door,” Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, the Navy officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency charged with fixing and managing the coronavirus supply chain, said during the vice president's call with governors.

Polowczyk said that shipments of PPE will be tailored to each nursing home facility based on their staffing size and will go out starting the first week in May, with a second shipment sent to the facilities the first week of June.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued guidance for nursing homes on April 2 urging them to “immediately ensure they are complying” with guidance related to infection control. This includes full use of personal protective equipment for interactions with all COVID-19 patients. But some nursing homes said implementing this guidance was challenging or impossible due to lack of these supplies.

Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told ABC News Thursday that she believes the administration’s response to nursing home’s was appropriately aimed at supporting states.

“At the federal level, we are trying to support what state and local officials are doing by the end of the day,” Verma said. “The response is, as we've said many times, it's locally executed. It's state managed and federally supported.”

Throughout the course of the coronavirus pandemic, nursing homes have proven themselves to be hot beds for the rapid spreading of the virus. Several nursing homes across the country have found themselves quickly overwhelmed by the virus.

ABC News has found that there have been at least 10,631 deaths of long-term care residents, but there are likely many more. The statistics were compiled using official data from states’ departments of health and governor’s office in 28 states and the District of Columbia, with the other states not yet reporting the numbers or not responding to requests for the information.

At Canterbury Nursing home in Virginia, COVID-19 rapidly overtook the facility, causing 49 deaths. Over 60% of the patients there tested positive.

When state health officials arrived early in the outbreak to inspect the facility, they noted that Canterbury did not have the PPE they would need to properly use it on all COVID-19 positive patients.

"They had some PPE available but nowhere close to what they would need to be able to use PPE on every patient in every scenario," said Dr. Danny Avula, the public health director for Richmond, Virginia, who was tasked with helping to manage the spread of COVID-19 at Canterbury.

Dr. Jim Wright, the medical director at Canterbury, told ABC news in an interview that when the pandemic was still a month away, his team conducted a survey to determine preparedness and found they did not have enough N-95 masks to combat a potential coronavirus outbreak.

"We didn't have enough," Wright said. "We were not able to get those and N95 masks because they were being diverted to the hospital, which, you know, in most normal times I think that's appropriate."

As Canterbury begins to recover from the worst of the pandemic, Wright's guidance to other nursing homes is still focused on this critical protective gear.

"Learn how to wear PPE now and train your staff and how to do that. I would also say that monitoring your staff for appropriate use of PPE, having a monitor on each hall or each unit is priceless," Wright said. "Making sure people have those masks and gowns on. And they're changing them appropriately between patients."