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.
The investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of facilities in the Grand Junction, Colorado, 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%. 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, Colorado, 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 have begun creeping up again, fueling new concerns. At one memory care facility in the Grand Junction area, 16 fully vaccinated residents were infected and four died, according to a CDC slide provided to The Associated Press. The residents who died were described as being in hospice care, with a median age of 93, indicating they were particularly frail. The CDC has not released the findings of its investigation publicly, but said it plans to publish the results in an upcoming Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The slide was shared with the AP by a person involved in internal deliberations, who requested anonymity because they did not have permission to release the data.
Of the 16 fully vaccinated residents infected at the memory care facility, CDC found that 13 developed symptoms, described as mild in most cases. The CDC investigated several nursing homes in Mesa County that were experiencing new outbreaks. At one location — described as “Facility A” — 42% of the staff were still not fully vaccinated, contrasting with only about 8% of residents who had failed to complete their shots. The CDC found a COVID-19 infection rate of 30% among vaccinated residents and staff at the facility, with residents accounting for the vast majority of cases.
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