Vice President Mike Pence made a nationwide call for coronavirus testing in America's 15,000 nursing homes, telling governors that he wants to see every state prioritize COVID-19 screening inside the facilities that have been hit the hardest by the new coronavirus.
"I want to say what we're urging with regard to nursing home testing is ... let's just get everybody in the homes everybody on the staff, let's get them tested," Pence said Monday.
Pence said the intense focus on nursing homes may stand as the nation's best chance to reduce the death toll from the outbreak, which has been highest in the long-term care centers that house some of the most vulnerable Americans.
Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the senior health officials helping guide the nation's response to the pandemic, said she believes "all one million nursing home residents," as well as staff, need to be tested within the next two weeks.
"We're really asking for every governor to focus, over the next two weeks, on testing 100% of the residents and workers, then setting up routine surveillance of all of the workers," Birx said.
State data analyzed by ABC News has started to show the totality of the outbreak's deadly imprint on nursing facilities. Available data from the 35 reporting states and the District of Columbia shows that there have been at least 26,013 nursing home deaths, representing 31% of the national death toll. And when adjusted to only include death counts of those states reporting, nursing home deaths make up 40% of the nation's total number of fatalities.
In just four East Coast states -- Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island -- two-thirds of the 8,447 people who have succumbed to the virus lived in nursing or long-term care facilities.
The ambitious White House call for widespread testing inside the nursing care industry does not offer explanations for how the tests will reach so many residents and staff in such short order. Even in some states that sought universal testing earlier this month, a number of nursing homes are still reporting difficulties in obtaining access to tests.
An official at one national nursing home chain told ABC News the company does not have sufficient tests on hand, at this point, to screen every resident. "We are still trying to get the tests we need in the states where it has been mandated," said the official, who asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize the company's relationship with state and federal officials.
Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the National Center for Assisted Living, said he hopes the federal government will back up the request for widespread testing with assistance.
"We strongly agree with the vice president and Dr. Birx's recommendation today for testing of all nursing home residents and staff and call on the federal government to help with this endeavor," Parkinson said. "Without access to more testing, long term care providers are at a severe disadvantage in identifying more of these asymptomatic residents and staff who could be contagious and an endangerment to others."
April Verrett, president of a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union that represents health care workers in California, said her members "describe a lack of consistent testing amongst patients and workers, leaving both further exposed to the unknown possibility of transmission."
"Many nursing home workers are parents, too, and go home to families unsure of whether they are carrying the virus," Verrett said.
Birx said obliquely that if governors "have any difficulty in doing this," the federal government will "stand beside you, to help with a federal contract to do that in partnership with you, all to just make sure that we can get 100% [of the people] tested and supported over the next two weeks."
But Dr. Danny Avula, the county health district director who oversaw the outbreak at Virginia's Canterbury nursing home where 49 people died from COVID-19, said that even if the number of tests needed to execute Pence's recommendation are accessible, he's unsure if there will be the necessary staff to administer them.
"The manpower is still a question," Avula said. "I think every health department is going to be in a similar bind where they just do not have the number of nurses and other medical staff to be able to go in and do this in all of their facilities in a two week period of time for example.”
Still, Richard Mollot, who heads The Long Term Care Community Coalition, said he considers the new plan "a good step in the right direction."
"We still need to quickly address the basic care and safety issues, such as ensuring that there is adequate staffing and that basic infection protocols are in place," Mollot said.