An uptick in nursing home COVID deaths, cases

Photo by Maryland GovPics via Flickr.

COVID-related nursing home cases and deaths are on the rise again, according to recently published data on AARP’s COVID-19 dashboard. And while these rates are nowhere near the levels of 2020 or early 2021, it’s still a troublesome sign that new COVID variants are making their way into facilities tasked with caring for vulnerable older adults.

Rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths rose in June for the second month in a row — with resident cases increasing by 27% for the four weeks ending June 19. That means about one in every 35 nursing home residents nationally tested positive. Staff positivity rates increased by 42% in the same period — about one in every 28. It’s not clear, however, whether staff were infected in the community or contracted COVID in the nursing home. Death rates are trending up too — increasing by about 54% in June compared with the previous month, according to AARP’s data, which is culled from Information on COVID-19 reported by nursing homes to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN).

Journalists can use this data to closely follow trends in their state, or even drill down to an individual facility level.

“We’ve actually had increasing cases for a couple of months now,” said Ari Houser, AARP senior methods advisor and lead data analyst on their nursing home COVID dashboard. “Preliminary CDC data through July 17 shows the trend continuing upward, so we’re not at the peak yet.”

Booster shots lagging

COVID vaccination rates are relatively high among nursing home residents and staff — nearly 88% of residents and 87% of staff nationally have had their primary vaccination. However, CMS data shows that while 83.7% of residents received at least one booster, only a little more than half of workers — 54.4% — were boosted as of the week ending July 10, 2022.

Resident vaccination rates are higher than for other infectious diseases like flu or pneumonia but absent any real significant push, they probably won’t get much higher, according to Houser. The focus should be on getting both residents and staff boosted as soon as possible. Those rates vary widely by state. In Arizona, for example, 59.8 of nursing home residents have been vaccinated and boosted; in Vermont, 88%. Staff booster rates range from just 30% in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri to a high of 96% in Massachusetts.

“Staff mandates do help,” Houser said, citing Massachusetts as an example. Vaccination rates for workers were at about 75% before the state enacted its mandate in the fall of 2021. Now, almost all nursing home workers in the state are vaccinated and have had at least one booster.  

Over 200,000 Residents and Staff in Long-Term Care Facilities Have Died From COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. More than one million residents have gotten sick and over a million workers have contracted the virus since it first appeared in early 2020. While death rates are down from their peak in January 2021, approximately 200 residents per week are still dying from the virus, Houser said.

“You have to use good infection control procedures and really try to minimize the spread in nursing homes and try to keep COVID from getting into the rest of the population, he said. “It’s really difficult in that setting to prevent the virus from infecting multiple people when it gets into the resident population.”

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