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Covid Cases Drop 83% Among Nursing Home Staffers

Covid Cases Drop 83% Among Nursing Home Staffers

Joan Phillips, a certified nursing assistant in a Florida nursing home, loved her job but dreaded the danger of going to work in the pandemic. When vaccines became available in December, she jumped at the chance to get one.

Months later, it appears that danger has faded. After the rollout of covid vaccines, the number of new covid cases among nursing home staff members fell 83% — from 28,802 for the week ending Dec. 20 to 4,764 for the week ending Feb. 14, data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services shows.

New covid-19 infections among nursing home residents fell even more steeply, by 89%, in that period, compared with 58% in the general public, CMS and Johns Hopkins University data shows.

These numbers suggest that “the vaccine appears to be having a dramatic effect on reducing cases, which is extremely encouraging,” said Beth Martino, spokesperson for the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, an industry group.

“It’s a big relief for me,” said Phillips, who works at the North Beach Rehabilitation Center outside Miami. Now, she said, she’s urging hesitant co-workers and anyone else who can to “go out and take the vaccination.”

After a brutal year in which the pandemic killed half a million Americans, despite unprecedented measures to curb its spread — including mask-wearing, physical distancing, school closures and economic shutdowns — the vaccines are giving hope that an end is in sight.

Noting that more than 3 million doses of vaccine have been doled out in nursing homes, CMS issued new guidelines  Wednesday allowing indoor visits in the facilities, even among unvaccinated residents and visitors, under most circumstances.

National figures on health care worker infections in other settings are hard to come by, but some statewide trends look promising. In California and Arkansas, health care worker covid cases have dropped faster than for the general public since December, and in Virginia the number of hospital staffers out of work for covid-related reasons has fallen dramatically.

Research in other countries suggests that vaccines have led to big drops in infection. A study of publicly funded hospitals in England indicated that a first dose was 72% effective at preventing covid among workers after 21 days and 86% effective seven days after the second shot. At Sheba Medical Center — Israel’s largest hospital, with over 9,600 workers — 170 staff members tested positive from Dec. 19, the first day the vaccine was offered, through Jan. 24. Of those who tested positive, only three had already received both doses of the vaccine, according to The Lancet.

Lost on the Frontline, a yearlong data and reporting project by KHN and The Guardian, is investigating over 3,500 covid deaths of U.S. health care workers. The monthly number has been declining since December, but deaths often lag weeks or months behind infections.

Along with other health care workers, nursing home staffers and residents were first in line to get vaccines in December because elderly people in congregate settings are among the most vulnerable to infection: More than 125,000 residents have died of covid, CMS data shows, while over 550,000 nursing home staff members have tested positive and more than 1,600 have died.

Yet the vaccination rate among staffers is far lower than that of residents. When the first clinics ran from mid-December to mid-January, a median of 78% of nursing home residents took a dose, while the median for staff was only 38%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now several nursing home associations say the rate of staff vaccination has been climbing, based on informal surveys.

While vaccines are “contributing to the observed declines in COVID-19 cases in nursing homes, other factors, like effective infection prevention and control programs/practices,” are also at play, CDC spokesperson Jade Fulce said.

Vaccine uptake by nursing home residents has been “very promising,” said Dr. Morgan Katz, a specialist in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University who is advising covid responses in nursing homes. “I do think this is a huge contributing factor” to the drop in staff cases.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.