What the US Government is Doing to Keep Nursing Homes COVID-Free

In late spring of 2021, the 142 nursing homes operated by the Good Samaritan Society hit a milestone that was unthinkable just four months earlier: Zero cases of COVID-19 across the whole company, from 900 at the peak of the pandemic.

The relief was short-lived though. In recent months, the case count has ticked up again. The company said it had pinpointed the cause of the uptick there and at other facilities: The cases increased in the same homes where unvaccinated staff were testing positive, seemingly carrying the virus into the home from the community.

Good Samaritan Society is an example of what has been happening at many nursing homes across the US, according to research. A forthcoming regulation that was announced last week by President Biden will hopefully help bring the case count back to zero in nursing homes across the country.

A Mandate to Get Nursing Home Staff Vaccinated

Last year, when the vaccines became available, many nursing home residents got vaccinated and the number of residents with COVID declined dramatically. Currently, the national average percent of vaccinated residents per facility is almost 90%, while the national average percent of vaccinated staff per facility is only around 66%. That might sound like a step in the right direction, but still hundreds of thousands of nursing home workers are not vaccinated.

New concerns are arising with Delta and other variants and no one wants to see a repeat of what happened last year in nursing homes. Citing rising case numbers, LeadingAge, which represents more than 2,000 nonprofit nursing homes, was among the 90 groups that support mandates for nursing home workers. “As COVID-19 variants emerge and proliferate, we can start saving more lives today by ensuring staff are fully vaccinated,” said Katie Smith Sloan, the chief executive of the group in a statement.

Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living agreed saying, “Vaccination mandates for health care personnel should be applied to all health care settings,” he said. “Without this, nursing homes face a disastrous workforce challenge.”

Luckily, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is developing an emergency regulation requiring staff vaccinations within the nation’s more than 15,000 Medicare and Medicaid-participating nursing homes that should go into effect no later than next month.

Nursing Home Staff Will Be Required to Be Vaccinated

President Biden announced on Wednesday, 8/18, that his administration will require that nursing home staff be vaccinated against COVID-19, as a condition for those facilities to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding. The new mandate, in the form of a forthcoming regulation to be issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, could take effect as soon as next month.

Biden unveiled the new policy in a White House address as the administration continues to look for ways to use mandates to encourage vaccine holdouts to get shots. “If you visit, live, or work in a nursing home, you should not be at a high risk for contracting COVID from unvaccinated employees,” Biden said.

Over the past several months, the millions of vaccinations that have been administered to nursing home residents and staff have shown to help prevent COVID-19 and have proven to be effective against the Delta variant. This new requirement should be instrumental in protecting the health and safety of nursing home residents and staff.

According to CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure,“(k)eeping nursing home residents and staff safe is our priority. The data are clear that higher levels of staff vaccination are linked to fewer outbreaks among residents, many of whom are at an increased risk of infection, hospitalization, or death. We will continue to work closely with our partners at the CDC, long-term care associations, unions, and other stakeholders to advance policies that keep residents and staff safe. As we advance these new requirements, we’ll work with nursing homes to address staff and resident concerns with compassion and by following the science.”

Nursing Homes are Concerned About Enforcing Mandate

Some nursing homes say they favor mandates but feel they cannot enforce them without full industry backing. “I would love to mandate the vaccine and I believe it’s the right thing to do,” said Janet Snipes, executive director of Holly Heights, a nursing home in Denver. “But if the nursing home next door does not, I will lose my employees to it.”

According to the New York Times, some nursing home staff members resisting vaccination argue that they can protect residents without being inoculated. “I go home, stay home as much as possible, do grocery pickup instead of shopping, do a lot of hand washing. I’m not exposing myself to other people,” said Jessica M., a director of nursing at a home in Grand Junction, Colo., who is unvaccinated.

For those who don’t comply, some states are implementing rules similar to the federal government where unvaccinated staff members at nursing homes must be tested for the virus, using a rapid test, every time they come to work.

Hopefully some of these actions will help keep nursing homes COVID-free and residents and staff safe and healthy.

Take Precautions When Visiting Loved Ones

Do you have a loved one in a nursing home? Be sure to take precautions before visiting him or her. Here are some examples:

  • Get Vaccinated if You Aren’t Already: Public health experts are saying that vaccines are the best protection against severe illness and hospitalization and that the vast majority of new hospitalizations from the delta variant are from people who are unvaccinated, making what Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

If seniors are around children too young to be vaccinated, for instance, or people who are immunocompromised and therefore unable to mount a full immune response, everyone would be well-advised to consider wearing a mask.

  • Wear a Mask: Amid delta’s rapid spread in late July, the CDC revised its mask guidance for fully vaccinated individuals, advising them to wear masks in public indoor spaces when in areas of “substantial” or “high” transmission. More than 90% of U.S. counties met that definition by mid-August.
  • Take Other Precautionary Measures: In addition to mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing, and proper respiratory etiquette (covering your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing) are still important. Of course, those experiencing symptoms should stay home and get tested for the coronavirus. Remember, COVID-19 is not the only concern. Experts also advise common-sense precautions to prevent all respiratory illnesses.

Plan for Loved Ones Who Need Nursing Home Care Now or in the Not-So-Distant Future

Residents are in nursing homes and assisted living because they need higher levels of care than generally can be provided at home. If you have a loved one who needs nursing home care or even if your loved one is already in a nursing home, if you haven’t done so already, the time to plan is now!

Elder Care Fairfax: 703-691-1888

Elder Care Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435

Estate Care Rockville: 301-519-8041

Elder Care DC: 202-587-2797

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