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By Herb Weiss, contributing writer on aging issues
Over a month ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) issued a Health Alert Network (HAN) Health Advisory to public health practitioners and clinicians about the urgent need to increase COVID-19 vaccination coverage across the United States to prevent surges in new infections that could increase COVID-19 related morbidity and mortality, overwhelm health care capacity, and widen existing COVID-19-related health disparities.
According to the July 27 Health Advisory, there is growing medical evidence that the Delta variant is at least twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is reported that most cases of COVID-19 hospitalizations and death are in unvaccinated people; however, there are breakthrough infections in vaccinated people because of the surge of infections among the unvaccinated. This is a particular concern in nursing homes, where vaccinated residents are infected by unvaccinated staff.
The Biden Administration announced plans in August to require COVID-19 vaccinations for nursing home staff as a condition for those facilities to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding. Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee, along with other states’ leadership, took similar steps to protect nursing home residents by requiring all healthcare staff to be vaccinated and the new federal mandate will ensure consistent and equitable standards throughout the country. At a COVID-19 update held at the state capitol in early August, McKee called for the new vaccine mandate (as a term of employment) to take effect.
COVID Cases Rise in Rhode Island Nursing Homes
Coronavirus continues to increase in nursing homes, warns AARP Rhode Island in a statement issued on September 17. According to the latest data from AARP’s Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard, in the four weeks ending August 22, resident cases increasing from 0.05 to 0.34 per 100 residents and staff cases increasing from 0.11 to 0.88 per 100 residents since the mid-July report.
Nationally, cases are concentrated among the unvaccinated, and those residents were three times as likely to contract COVID-19 last month compared to residents who are fully vaccinated.
The last eight months have shown vaccines to be the most effective tool in preventing COVID-19 related deaths, says AARP Rhode Island’s statement. There were modest increases in vaccination rates during this four-week period, with 92% of Rhode Island Nursing Home residents and 76% of staff fully vaccinated as of August 22.
“This month’s dashboard underscores why all staff and residents in long-term care facilities must be vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director, Catherine Taylor. “For unvaccinated nursing home residents, their risk of an infection is back up to the levels we saw a year ago. Too many people in Rhode Island who lived and worked in nursing facilities have died from COVID-19, and no one wants to see that tragedy repeated,” said Taylor.
The AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard also found over a 300% increase in RI nursing homes reporting an urgent need for PPE in the period ending August 22, with almost 10% of facilities in Rhode Island reporting they did not have sufficient PPE.
Nursing Facilities Struggling to Maintain Adequate Staffing
While the Rhode Island Health Care Association supports Governor McKee’s decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations across the health care continuum, says John E. Gage, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, representing 64 of the 77 nursing facilities in the Ocean State, nursing homes are struggling to maintain their staffing levels to meet the state’s direct care requirements, but many are struggling to maintain that level, he says, noting that next month’s deadline requiring nursing facility staff will further strain the already “precarious staffing crisis in the state’s nursing facilities”.
Gage noted that the state’s Department of Health has surveyed facilities this week regarding the number of staff that will be unable to enter facilities in two weeks because they are unvaccinated. “It is reported that nursing facilities will lose 7% of their workforce – 706 staff of 10,137 in the workforce across all disciplines,” says Gage, noting that 495 out of the 706 are clinical staff members.
According to Gage, “Rhode Island nursing facilities are ranked the fourth best state for resident vaccinations and fifth best state for staff vaccination rates in the country. He notes, when taking a look at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data released last week, in Rhode Island 92.65% of residents are fully vaccinated compared to 84.1% nationwide. As to staff, 78.99% of Rhode Island’s nursing facility staff are fully vaccinated compared to 63.7% nationwide.
Gage says, “The vaccine mandate will further add to the challenge of staff retention and recruitment. We are facing the implementation of a minimum staffing mandate to take effect 1/1/22. There’s not adequate staff available to hire, and the legislature did not provide for adequate funding to achieve the upcoming mandate”.
Finally, Gage notes that while visitation is currently open at Rhode Island nursing facilities there are many factors that make it difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19 from staff to residents. “Our staff are members of each and every community in Rhode Island They interact with others outside of work who may or may not be vaccinated, and many have children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination. To further complicate matters, there are breakthrough cases among those who are fully vaccinated, especially now with the prevalence of the Delta variant,” says Gage.
“Rhode Island facilities will continue to take all steps necessary to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 infections,” says Gage, noting that vaccinations are the key to eradicating this pandemic, together with the proper use of personal protective equipment.
The AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard analyzes federally reported data in four-week periods going back to June 1, 2020. Using this data, the AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the dashboard to provide snapshots of the virus’ infiltration into nursing homes and impact on nursing home residents and staff, with the goal of identifying specific areas of concern at the national and state levels in a timely manner.
The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available www.AARP.org/nursinghomedashboard, and an AARP story about this month’s data is available here. For more information on how COVID is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes.
Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.