WASHINGTON (AP) — Lagging vaccination rates among nursing home staff are being linked to a national increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths at senior facilities in July, and are at the center of a federal investigation in a hard-hit Colorado location where disease detectives found many workers were not inoculated.
The investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of facilities in the Grand Junction, Colo., area raises concerns among public health doctors that successes in protecting vulnerable elders with vaccines could be in peril as the more aggressive delta variant spreads across the country.
Nationally about 59% of nursing home staff have gotten their shots, about the same as the overall percentage of fully vaccinated adults — but significantly lower than the roughly 80% of residents who are vaccinated, according to Medicare. And some states have much lower vaccination rates of around 40%.
Some policy experts are urging the government to close the gap by requiring nursing home staffers get shots, a mandate the Biden administration has been reluctant to issue. Nursing home operators fear such a move could backfire, prompting many staffers with vaccine qualms to simply quit their jobs.
To be sure, the vast majority of fully vaccinated people who become infected with the delta variant suffer only mild symptoms.
But “older adults may not respond fully to the vaccine and there’s 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.
“Vaccinating workers in nursing homes is a national emergency because the delta variant is a threat even to those already vaccinated,” he said.
The CDC conducted its investigation of delta variant outbreaks in elder care facilities in Mesa County, Colo., in May and June. The area is a coronavirus hot spot. The agency said it is assisting states and counties throughout the nation as part of the White House’s COVID-19 “surge teams.”
Nationally, data collected by CDC show that deaths and confirmed infections among nursing home staff have decreased significantly since vaccinations began in January. But the number of deaths reported among staff in July have begun creeping up again, fueling new concerns.
Laura Gelezunas has firsthand experience with a breakthrough case in a nursing home.
After numerous calls and emails to her mother’s Missouri nursing home and the company’s headquarters in Tennessee, Gelezunas finally got confirmation that her mom’s congestion, headache and sore throat were symptoms of COVID-19.
However, Gelezunas said the facility wasn’t transparent about how her vaccinated mother, Joann, got sick. While the home has pointed to outside visitors, Gelezunas said her mother’s only visitors have been her brother and his wife, who are both vaccinated. Gelezunas believes it was an unvaccinated staff member, but the home has yet to give her answers.
Gelezunas asked that her mother interact with only vaccinated workers, but the directors said they couldn’t make promises because of privacy reasons and their inability to mandate inoculations for workers.
“My mom is bedridden. I got people taking intimate care of her and you’re telling me you can’t tell me that at $7,500 a month that my mom can’t have someone that’s vaccinated take care of her,” said Gelezunas, who lives in Mexico.
Joann told her daughter that between 12 and 15 residents were infected with the virus recently, which she found out from one of her aides.