A social care leader has spoken of the growing alarm over the high rate of false positive Covid-19 test results that’s piling pressure on struggling care homes.
Mario Kreft MBE, the chair of Care Forum Wales, revealed a survey of members had shown that nearly a third of care homes had experienced a test which had been a false positive in the previous fortnight.
Another problem adding to the rising anxiety, confusion and frustration in the sector was the fact that results were often too slow in coming back, with delays up to a week not uncommon.
Mr Kreft is so concerned about the situation that he has launched a new drive to Shield Social Care and Save Lives This Winter.
At the heart of the campaign is the call for testing shambles to be sorted out so that the virus can be kept at bay as Wales enters a two-week firebreak national lockdown.
The survey by Care Forum Wales, which represents nearly 500 independent providers, revealed that with 29.6% of care homes across Wales had experienced positive results that re-tested as negative.
In reality, care bosses say the rate of false-positives far exceeds figures from the Welsh Government Technical Advisory Group which forecasts nine false tests in every 1,000 tests.
On top of that the survey showed 28.2% of care homes had waited for at least one result after seven days while more than half (52.1%) had experienced at least one inconclusive result.
Public Health Wales said they were unable to provide an answer to a Freedom of Information request to confirm the number times a positive test had been re-tested and found to be negative.
Mr Kreft said: “From the very beginning we’ve fought for a comprehensive and effective testing regime and now, many months on, care homes still face unacceptable delays for results which threaten the safety of staff and residents.
“Our own survey raises serious questions about the validity and reliability of current results with almost one in three homes experiencing false-positives, forcing healthy staff and residents to unnecessarily self-isolate.
“Understandably, it’s causing growing alarm, confusion and frustration among our members who have responded heroically to the challenges of saving lives during this pandemic.
“We are renewing our calls to the Welsh Government to tackle this situation with urgency as we head into winter with many homes already in lockdown.
“It is critical testing results are delivered fast to not only prevent the spread of this disease, but also so asymptomatic positive cases can be retested swiftly so homes do not face unnecessary restrictions or staffing shortages.
“This is not just about protecting social care. the vulnerable people we look after and our magnificent frontline staff.
“It’s also about the safe discharge of people from hospital into care homes so that they are safe and that the NHS can function without being overwhelmed this winter.
“People in the sector have worked tirelessly to keep this virus at bay. We stand with the NHS on the front line ready to do our bit,
“But we must be given the necessary support so we can engage the sector and underpin the efforts of the NHS.”
Among the concerned members is Tony Lovell, who owns Llwyndyrys Residential Home in Llechryd, Ceredigion.
He said homes were suffering crippling staff shortages and were being forced to close their doors to new admissions as a result of a new testing fiasco concerning inaccurate results.
The care boss, whose own home has remained Covid-19 free since the onset of the pandemic, said there had been 15 positive test results in private care homes in the Ceredigion region and 21 in council-run care homes since blanket testing began – all of which had been found to be falsely-positive upon re-testing.
He said: “False positives and dealing with them is now our biggest headache.
“Our care homes in Ceredigion have been free from the virus from the very start. We’ve had a 100% failure rate of the results and something is amiss – it shouldn’t be happening on this scale. It just doesn’t stack up and there’s either something wrong with the technology or the way it’s done.
“A care home in Aberystwyth, for example, had eight false positives in one go so they had to isolate eight people and the people they’d come into contact with including family members.
“The stress that these false positives cause is terrible for staff, residents and families. It is also chaos trying to cover shifts. If you have a small home of about 16 residents with 18 to 20 staff, to have one or two of them off at one time is an absolute nightmare. It’s very, very frustrating.”
Mr Lovell said one of the problems care homes faced was the length of time it took to receive the results of the first Covid-19 test from the UK’s Lighthouse Laboratory diagnostic facility, which could be anything up to six days. After this, many care homes had found these results to be “false-positives” upon retesting with their local health board, he added.
“Ceredigion has had a very low incident rate since the outbreak. When a care home gets a positive test coming back, we re-test as soon as possible and certainly within 24 hours,” he said.
“If we were not doing these second tests it would look as if we had 36 cases of Covid-19 in our care homes when in reality it is zero.”
The results of the survey came as no surprise to Glyn Williams, who owns Gwyddfor Care Home in Bodedern, near Holyhead.
His own staff test results were taking on average between three and six days to come back and one staff member had already experienced a “false positive”.
He said: “If a staff member tests positive then the home turns red meaning no family visits or new admissions and residents are isolated in their rooms.
“The home is turned green again after the positive is confirmed as false.
“We are seeing care homes changing colour quicker than traffic lights at the moment – it’s a big concern.
“The red status could last for 28 days if a local authority or Health board fail to update the IT systems.
“This has a massive impact on the wellbeing of care home residents because they are unable to have any visitors.
“Some of our residents rely on visits from their loved ones. If they can’t have visits for a week or two it has a detrimental effect on them.
“With current estimated prevalence within care home staff we can expect nine out of every 1,000 to be a false positive, homes appear to be getting a lot more than that.
“The majority of these tests through the UK portal are taking three to six days to come through. It’s the next major scandal for the sector; the amount of time testing takes to come through and the inaccuracy and unreliability of the results.”
Equally concerned about the situation is Sanjiv Joshi, Director of the Caron Group, which owns 14 homes across South and Mid-Wales.
According to Mr Joshi, the results are received anywhere from one to seven days. Most times it take too long and therefore reduces their usefulness.
He said: “In one home, we had two staff members isolating for a couple of days due to positive results. On their second test, they were negative and were able to return to work.
“Public Health Wales’ dilemma is the fact that the number of false negatives has also gone up.
“The disruption to our service is immense and will lead to homes being short-staffed. We cannot afford for staff to be isolating unnecessarily. Our care homes rely entirely on our staff being available to deliver this vital service.
“We would urge Public Health Wales to recommend three tests, in the case of a care staff member who is asymptomatic and tests positive. This would cause the least disruption for a care home and at the same time minimising the risk of transmission.”
Mr Williams added: “I have already written to the Welsh Government to pursue point of care testing with emerging 15 minute tests. Care Homes need to be able to test everyone, every day, before entering.
“We could use our spare capacity to help people in the community. We have 24 hour manning and could feed test results into the local Tracing system within an hour.
“Wales could really have a world leading Test Trace and Protect system. Covid-19 can be stopped dead in its tracks if we can isolate all contacts within the golden 48 hours.”