December 1, 2023

It’s difficult to make a direct comparison in rates between nursing homes and the general population because of differences in data collection. While health officials regularly track facilities’ COVID data, many Americans use home tests and do not necessarily report their results to their local health departments. 

Cases were also up 42 percent among staff, according to the AARP data. The majority of nursing home staff are women, disproportionately women of color, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. 

While deaths at nursing homes are higher than they have been in previous months, they are not as high as they were early in the pandemic, which Hauser attributes to high vaccination rates in nursing homes: On average across the country, 88 percent of residents and 89 percent of nursing home staff have received their primary series of COVID-19 vaccines.  

“I don’t envision another month where we have upwards of 20,000 people dying [like early in the pandemic],” he said. 

However, low and slow-to-rise rates of booster vaccinations, particularly among staff, are a concern. According to AARP, only 51 percent of nursing home staff have received a booster as of June. Seventy-two percent of nursing home residents have received a first booster nationwide. 

There is not yet enough data to track second boosters among residents and staff, though Hauser anticipates having second booster numbers in the coming months. 

“Just about everyone [living] in a nursing home is eligible for a second booster and so are a lot of the staff,” Hauser said. 

Booster rates for both residents and staff vary widely depending on the state. In Florida, only 59 percent of nursing home residents have received boosters. In New York, 77 percent of residents have received a first booster — above the U.S. average of 71.6 percent.  

Most nursing homes nationwide do not require boosters and there is currently no national mandate. 

According to the CDC, the vaccine provides excellent protection against severe disease and death. However, it has been less effective in protecting against mild and moderate disease from newer variants of the virus. It is still unclear if vaccination reduces risk of post-COVID complications.

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Donna Gregory, 53, works for a nursing home in Cheektowaga, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. She remembers the horror of the early pandemic: “It was horrible. We lost so many residents,” she said. 

Staff from local funeral homes refused to enter out of fear, so Gregory and other nursing home staff were responsible for putting residents into body bags — when they were even available. 

“We had to be the undertakers. We had to put [disinfecting] spray in their mouths. [If there were no body bags] we’d cover their faces with a pillowcase or a towel. Then we’d put them on the gurney and take them to the door,” Gregory recalled. 

While cases are currently up in Gregory’s nursing home, the situation is not as dire as it was then. “There’s no comparison,” she said. 

Gregory is fully vaccinated and boosted — her nursing home requires it of staff. She contracted COVID-19 for the first time this January during the first omicron wave. 

Gregory described her initial COVID infection as relatively mild and flu-like. However, she has since been hospitalized twice for heart problems, including one night in the intensive care unit.

“I’ve seen a cardiologist and the only thing they can tell me was that it may be due to the virus,” Gregory said. People who have had COVID-19 appear to be at higher risk of developing heart problems, but the reasons are not yet well understood. 

One thing that is different about the current wave, according to Hauser: It’s everywhere. 

“When numbers are low in one area of the country, it really just means that the impacts happened last month, or they’re going to happen next month,” he said. 

Hauser also encouraged caution when it comes to praising any particular state’s handling of the pandemic. 

“There’s a desire, if a particular state is doing well at this point in time, to attribute low cases in that state to something that state has done,” he said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with that…The reality is that it’s everywhere. There’s no state that’s being spared from the virus.”

This story originally published by The 19th.

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