NEW YORK • Jeannie Wells had hoped that regular visits would resume at her elderly mother’s New York nursing home once all the residents were fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Around Easter, her wish finally came true, and she was able to hold the 93-year-old’s hand more than a year after bringing her mother to the facility for rehabilitation for a fractured hip and knee.
But that reunion was short-lived. Visits were quickly stopped for about six weeks after an employee tested positive for COVID, and Wells said visits are still far from normal even when there haven’t been outbreaks. COVID-19 vaccines have allowed nursing homes in the U.S. to make dramatic progress since the dark days of the pandemic, but senior care facilities are still experiencing scattered outbreaks that are largely blamed on unvaccinated staff members. The outbreaks and ensuing shutdowns have jolted family members who were just starting to enjoy in-person visits with loved ones for the first time in a year.
While the outbreaks inside nursing homes now are much smaller, less frequent and less severe than during the height of the pandemic, there continue to be hundreds of deaths each week attributed to the coronavirus. According to federal data, 472 nursing home deaths were related to COVID-19 in the first two weeks of May, down from 10,675 in the first two weeks of January.
“There is this notion among some that vaccines were administered in long-term care, so we’re done, and that would be a perilous mistake,” said Dr. David Gifford, chief medical officer for the American Health Care Association, a national nursing home trade association, in a recent statement. “Nursing homes and assisted living communities have a constant flow of new residents, whether coming from the hospital or the community, and many of them haven’t been vaccinated yet.”
In addition, the CDC has warned that low rates of vaccination among health care workers in skilled nursing facilities raises risks of outbreaks.
A March outbreak involving a variant at a Kentucky nursing home, where most residents had been vaccinated for COVID-19, was traced to an infected, unvaccinated worker, according to a CDC report. Among the 46 cases identified, 26 residents and 20 workers became infected, including 18 residents and four workers who were fully vaccinated 14 days before the outbreak.
Three of the nursing home’s residents who contracted COVID-19 died, including two who were not vaccinated. “Breakthrough” infections among vaccinated individuals were also identified in nursing homes in Chicago, according to recent CDC report.