Residents of nursing homes have been a particularly at-risk group throughout the pandemic, and the advent of the fast-spreading Omicron variant has them facing another wave of infections and deaths, new data shows.
During the week ending Jan. 9, U.S. nursing homes reported more than 32,000 COVID-19 cases and 645 deaths among its residents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's a sevenfold increase in cases from a month earlier and a 47% increase in deaths.
About 57,200 nursing home workers also had COVID-19 that same week, a tenfold increase from a month earlier, the CDC said.
"We need to build a Fort Knox around protecting nursing homes, but we're not doing that right now, and that's why cases are surging," Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, told the Associated Press. "We're going to have exponential numbers of hospitalizations and deaths."
Still, vaccination efforts may have made a real impact in saving lives: Even with the dramatic increases in cases, the death toll from COVID-19 at nursing homes is still a fraction of those in December 2020, when the CDC says about 6,200 deaths per week were recorded.
About 87% of nursing home residents have been fully vaccinated, the CDC says, and 63% have received their third doses. Among staff at care facilities, about 83% are fully vaccinated and 29% have their boosters.
To further protect residents, Feigl-Ding recommends vaccines, mandatory boosters, testing visitors, using medical-grade masks (such as N95s) and using high-efficiency air filters.
Facilities also need to be prioritized for testing supplies, said Lisa Sanders of LeadingAge, an association of nonprofit providers of nursing homes and other aging services.
Nursing homes are working to further protect their residents by once again putting limits on visitors, sometimes by keeping them in common areas with physical distance, providing surgical masks or requiring proof of a negative test, while also holding vaccine clinics and town hall meetings on the importance of vaccines and boosters.
"COVID ripped through this building in 10 seconds," said Todd Fernald, who runs the Webster at Rye nursing home in New Hampshire, recalling an outbreak of COVID-19 cases at the nursing home in late November. The surge happened despite the fact that 100% of residents and staff were vaccinated. Many weren't boosted, however, and were waiting to receive the extra shots.
The outbreak killed six residents and infected dozens of others, including 20 employees, according to the AP. Boosters have now been administered to all residents and are also being given to employees, Fernald said.
"I only lost one employee who didn't want to be vaccinated and chose to resign their job," he said. Fernald added that he's "having more and more people each and every week that I see are getting boosted and bringing me their booster cards."
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a Biden administration vaccine mandate that covers most health care workers in the United States.
Sharon Wheeler's 88-year-old dad recently contracted COVID-19 in his Naperville, Illinois, nursing home. Staff has told her that her dad, who has dementia, has mild symptoms, and Wheeler hopes his vaccines and booster will help him.
"I worked so hard to make sure he never got (COVID-19) because I was so terrified," she told the AP. "He's such an older man, and I don't want to lose him this way."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19.
SOURCES: Associated Press, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention