NURSING HOMES VIRUS

Elizabeth Gillander, 78, receives a booster shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a mobile clinic set up at Fircrest Senior Living in McMinnville, Ore., on Oct. 6. Thousands of new cases have been reported among vulnerable elderly residents in the last several months, as variants fuel outbreaks. 

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Several states are experiencing new surges in COVID cases, especially in the Midwest and the Northeast. And fresh outbreaks have been reported this month at nursing homes in Vermont, Virginia and elsewhere despite a monthslong vaccination rate nationwide of about 86 percent among residents in skilled nursing facilities.

Booster programs have taken on more urgency given that nearly 4,000 new COVID cases are reported every week in nursing homes, according to federal data, and experts say many of the case clusters are occurring in homes that have yet to administer the extra doses.

“When we compare rates of COVID-19 disease between those who are vaccinated with two doses and those who received a booster dose, the rate of disease is markedly lower for those who received their booster, demonstrating our booster shots are working,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And in some places, outbreaks among residents may still be occurring because vaccination rates among nursing home staff members continue to lag behind national averages.

Unlike last winter’s concerted federal push to vaccinate residents and staff in nursing homes, the booster rollout has been sluggish and piecemeal, health experts said. Public information is sparse: About 42percent of Americans older than 65 have received a booster shot, according to federal reports, but there is no data available yet on U.S. sites to track nursing home booster programs.

The staggering COVID death toll at nursing homes in 2020, steep declines in cases after the successful vaccine campaign and then the steady rise again in late summer and this fall should have made boosters for older Americans a top priority, some experts say.

“What’s been surprising is the lack of data and attention on nursing homes this time around,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, a physician and dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. The government should have authorized additional doses as early as July, he noted, especially since nursing home residents were among the first to receive the vaccines 10 or more months ago.

“The data was clear at that point,” Jha said. “We were seeing waning immunity, particularly in the elderly.”


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