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Health Department seeks answers after patients, staff at area nursing homes test positive for COVID-19, then negative

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Apr 30, 2020 at 9:01 PM

The Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office is investigating a slew of positive COVID-19 tests among asymptomatic patients and staff at four area nursing homes who later tested negative.

“We think that it’s probably a false positive, but we’re treating them like they are true positives because we just have to be on the safe side and make sure that, if they do really have it, they’re not infecting other patients,” said Dr. David Kirschke, Director of the regional health office.

Over the past week, Agape Nursing and Rehabilitation Center (two), Cornerstone Village (two), Christian Care Center of Bristol (one) and Ivy Hall Nursing Home (four) all reported positive COVID-19 tests in their facilities. All patients, which included three residents and six staff members, were asymptomatic and retested in a state laboratory, where their results came back negative.

Agape, Christian Care Center and Ivy Hall are served by a common consulting company, and provided the Press with similar statements earlier this week confirming they have “do not have” any positive COVID-19 tests, and that they’re working closely with Department of Health.

Cornerstone Village could not be reached for comment, but a statement posted to their Facebook page on Monday indicated their two cases also retested negative. Similar statements were distributed by the other three facilities.

“There’s no one sick — everyone’s been asymptomatic — but we have these positive tests, all of which when we retested them they’ve been negative,” Kirschke said, adding that the test they used, a polymerase chain reaction test used across the country, is normally “very reliable.”

“This is a very isolated event, which involves about 10 patients, but for the most part PCR is very reliable,” Kirschke said of the test.

The tests were processed by an out-of-state lab that the health department is “not very familiar with.” Agape, Christian Care Center and Ivy Hall issued statements on Thursday saying in part that their facilities rely “solely upon certified licensed laboratories to process the labs,” and directed any inquiries about the testing process to the labs that performed them. Kirschke declined to name the lab, citing the investigation.

Kirschke said the health department and the facilities are still treating the positive results as true positives, and are isolating the residents while the staff who tested positive remain at home.

“We don’t think these people probably have coronavirus, but we can’t discount this positive test,” Kirschke said, adding that, since they weren’t able to acquire the original samples, they won’t be able to definitively say the results were false positives. “We have questions about the tests, but we also want to be on the safe side. We just kind of have to roll with it and treat these labs as if they’re positive to be on the safe side.”

Widespread testing on the way for Tennessee nursing homes

During a press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced the state will be testing every resident and staff member in its more than 700 long-term care facilities in the coming weeks. 

“We’re committed to testing every resident and every staff in every one of our 700 long-term care facilities. It will be a great undertaking, but it honors the value of these lives in those facilities,” Lee said, adding that it’s “time we protect them.” 

Kirschke said “because of this situation,” Agape, Christian Care Center of Bristol, Cornerstone Village and Ivy Hall “ will be the first nursing homes that we do widespread testing in.” 

As of Thursday, there were 478 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Tennessee nursing homes, and 44 deaths. Data on COVID-19 in nursing homes is updated weekly on Friday.