What nursing homes look like with the spread of omicron : NPR

COVID-19 infections are skyrocketing in nursing homes. Deaths among residents are only a fraction of what they were in 2020. But staffing shortages have worsened and are affecting resident care.


Today’s Supreme Court ruling on the Biden administration’s COVID vaccine mandates is a mixed decision. The court struck down the mandate for large workplaces, but upheld the mandate for health care facilities that receive federal funds like Medicare payments. Indeed, this applies to almost every hospital and nursing home in the United States.

NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee joins us now to talk more about nursing homes, which, like hospitals, have been battered by the omicron surge. Hello, Rithu.


Chang: Hello. So, you know, I remember how badly nursing homes were hit at the start of the pandemic. Can you tell us, how are they today?

CHATTERJEE: Well, just last week there were 32,000 infections among residents, slightly less than the huge peak reached last winter. But the good news here, Ailsa, is that deaths are only about a tenth of what they were last winter, so vaccines are really helping.

But the staff, however, is a whole different story. I spoke with Mark Parkinson. He leads the trade group representing for-profit nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

MARK PARKINSON: Unfortunately, we are now at an all-time high in terms of personnel cases. Over the past week, more than 50,000 employee cases have reported a positive COVID result.

CHATTERJEE: And a lot of those people died. In the past week alone, almost 70 nursing home workers have died, which is close to the record number of staff deaths in the first ever summer of the pandemic.

CHANG: Wow. Wait. Why is the death rate so high among nursing home workers?

CHATTERJEE: Well, it really comes down to lower vaccination rates than residents. And that’s why the Supreme Court’s decision upholding a nationwide vaccination mandate for healthcare workers will be crucial – because nursing home staff have been much slower to get vaccinated than residents. They’ve caught up somewhat, but there’s still a huge gap when it comes to boosters. Only a third of workers are boosted.

Mark Parkinson of the industry group says vaccine hesitancy is a big problem.

PARKINSON: You enter rural areas. You walk into the redder states like my home state of Kansas and you encounter the same hesitation about vaccines that you see in the general population – lots of misunderstanding, confusion, people who were misled by false statements on the Internet.

CHATTERJEE: So while the Supreme Court was reviewing the mandate, many nursing homes put in place their own vaccination mandates. But many others did not.

CHANG: Well, I mean, with so many workers getting sick and dying, I can imagine that really had an impact on the care of the residents in these retirement homes.

CHATTERJEE: Yeah, it made an already bad situation worse. More than 200,000 people have quit their jobs in long-term care facilities since the pandemic began because of burnout, and many of those jobs pay very little. And these days, you can make more money doing something else.

Laurie Brewer is the Long Term Care Ombudsman for the State of New Jersey. She says it affects healing.

LAURIE BREWER: We’re definitely seeing a huge increase in calls from residents saying they’re not changed. They don’t get their meals on time.

CHATTERJEE: And many facilities have closed. Many are not accepting new patients, which in turn is affecting hospitals as they can no longer discharge patients who need long-term hospitalization.

This is Dr. David Kim in Providence, which has hospitals along the West Coast.

DAVID KIM: It starts to recede all the way down the chain and then you start to see it come out, you know, with long wait times in the ER, patients in the hallways waiting for rooms because they’re not not ready to go home, but they can’t have a bed.

CHATTERJEE: And the ripple effects are really everywhere because now there’s more pressure on families who have – now have to take care of their elderly loved ones…

Chang: Yeah.

CHATTERJEE: …Because they can’t be placed in long-term care.

CHANG: This is Rhitu Chatterjee from NPR. Thank you Ritu.

CHATERJEE: Thank you.

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