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The rising number of nursing home COVIDE-19 cases points to unvaccinated staff

Resident Frank Massari receives the COVID-19 vaccination at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Vineland, Vineland, N.J., Jan.1, 2021. These are the first vaccinations administered at the Vineland Home under the Federal Pharmacy Program. Image - Mark Olsen, Public Domain
Resident Frank Massari receives the COVID-19 vaccination at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Vineland, Vineland, N.J., Jan.1, 2021. These are the first vaccinations administered at the Vineland Home under the Federal Pharmacy Program. Image - Mark Olsen, Public Domain

Lagging vaccination rates among nursing home staff are being linked to a national increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths at senior facilities, and are at the center of a federal investigation in a hard-hit Colorado location where disease detectives found many workers were not inoculated.

People in long-term care facilities have carried a disproportionate burden of suffering and death during the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention increased isolation due to lockdowns. While representing about 1.0 percent of the U.S. population, they account for about 22 percent of COVID-19 deaths, according to the Associated Press.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted its investigation of delta variant outbreaks in elder care facilities in Mesa County, Colorado, in May and June. Mesa County is considered one of the nation’s “hot spots.”

That investigation has raised concerns among public health doctors that successes in protecting vulnerable elders with vaccines may be in peril as the more aggressive delta variant spreads across the country.

There is a huge discrepancy between vaccination rates for nursing home staff and the residents they care for. About 59 percent of nursing home staff (about the same as fully vaccinated adults across the country) have gotten their shots, compared to 80 percent of nursing home residents, according to Medicare.

Texas Army National Guard Soldiers with Joint Task Force 176 disinfect the West Oaks Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Austin, Texas, May 12, 2020. Source – Staff Sgt. Michael Giles/Texas National Guard. Public Domain

But here’s the kicker – many states are showing a much lower rate of vaccination for nursing home staff, more like 42 percent. In February, two of the largest nursing home trade groups, the American Health Care Association (AHCA) and LeadingAge, set a target to get 75 percent of nursing home workers in every facility nationwide vaccinated by the end of June, reports AARP.

However, the  CMS’s COVID-19 Nursing Home Data page includes a list of fewer than 2,200 facilities — from the 15,000-plus it regulates — that have achieved that goal as of June 6.

Mandates might not work

All the coronavirus vaccines in the U.S. are free to the public, and they are safe to use. However, the one big issue facing many nursing home operators is trying to overcome the misinformation about vaccines, reports WBNS

Nursing home operators fear such a move could backfire, prompting many staffers with vaccine qualms to simply quit their jobs. And yes, the vast majority of fully vaccinated people who become infected with the delta variant suffer only mild symptoms.

But health professionals are talking about fully vaccinated healthy adults – not the elderly or disabled. “Older adults may not respond fully to the vaccine and there’s an enormous risk of someone coming in with the virus,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Jennifer Romero, a registered nurse with the Florida Department of Health, explains the process of the specimen collection to a nursing home resident in Northeast Florida, May 1, 2020. Image courtesy of Sgt. Michael Baltz/107th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Florida National Guard.

“Vaccinating workers in nursing homes is a national emergency because the delta variant is a threat even to those already vaccinated,” he said.

In June, seven residents died from COVID-19 at an Indiana facility where less than half the staff – 44 percent – was fully vaccinated, said Howard County health officer Dr. Emily Backer. 

Backer acknowledged that the facility’s 44 percent staff vaccination rate was “lower than we’d like, But at this point,” she added, “They can’t force them.”

The list goes on. Hawaii is the leader for staff vaccinations, with 84 percent of nursing home staff completely vaccinated. But in Louisiana, it’s half that, at 41.1 percent.

Nursing home staff in Florida are the second least vaccinated against COVID-19 as the state faces a surge of new infections driven by the virulent Delta variant, reports Newsweek.

Just 41.8 percent of Florida nursing home staff have been fully vaccinated against the virus, not far from Louisiana’s national low of 41.1 percent, according to data released Tuesday by AARP.

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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