Unvaccinated nursing home workers could put residents at-risk, public health professionals say

Published: Feb. 3, 2021 at 7:24 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - As Louisiana moves to take back vaccines not being administered as planned at nursing homes, more nursing home staffers are urged to roll up their sleeves and get the shots.

Among 11,000 skilled nursing facilities, 78% of residents received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine between the middle of December and mid-January. Only 38% of staff got the shot during that time, the CDC says.

Dr. Charles Stoecker, a Tulane University health economist who researches vaccine policy, has worked with the CDC and the World Health Organization on vaccination compliance.

“The people that are going in and out of that facility most frequently are the staff,” Stoecker says. “So you really want your staff to be vaccinated to form a protective bubble for the residents of that facility.”

Dr. Stefan Gravenstein, Director of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Care at Brown University, explores immunity and infection in older adults, including influenza and vaccine responses. He says he likes the rate of nursing home residents accepting the shots compared to that of staffers.

“For residents, they’re going quite well. We have close to 80% of residents vaccinated and then 90% of the facilities who’ve had at least one vaccination clinic,” said Gravenstein.

Gravenstein spoke to FOX 8 through a collaboration with Sciline. He said there is a risk for nursing home residents if staffers go without vaccinations.

“For those who have declined vaccination they’re at risk of those staff infecting them,” said Gravenstein.

Mark Berger, Executive Director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association issued the following statement:

“The Louisiana Nursing Home Association (LNHA) is very pleased that the significant majority of nursing facility residents have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Nursing facilities are in the second round of clinics with the third round scheduled in the coming weeks. Nursing facilities will continue to work diligently to educate staff members and residents on this great opportunity to protect themselves and others against COVID-19.

The Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) assured LNHA that sufficient doses will continue to be allocated for nursing facility residents and staff members.”

Federal health officials have said it is possible that new variants of the virus could reinfect people who have already had COVID-19.

More: COVID variants threaten to reinfect those who’ve already had it

Dr. Gravenstein said having antibodies against the virus could lower that risk.

“Clearly infection with SARS-CoV-2 virus does not necessarily protect you from future reinfection; your risk certainly goes down,” said Gravenstein.

Gravenstein believes vaccines can be adjusted to respond to the variants.

“There is no doubt that we will have a shift in the variants over the coming months. The current vaccine that’s being manufactured and being licensed will have some cross-protection against those variants, it may not be quite as good, but it may be sufficiently good to continue to stem the spread of the disease and give us a handle on the pandemic,” Gravenstein stated.

The federal government partnered with Walgreens and CVS to have the pharmacies administer vaccines at long-term care facilities but because some doses for nursing homes are going unused the Louisiana Department of Health says the state plans to redirect unused doses to the general public.

Dr. Courtney Phillips mentioned that during testimony to a congressional committee this week.

“That is going to be a big help to our state, being able to pull some of that back and utilize it immediately, so it’s not sitting there,” said Phillips.

Stoecker applauds the state’s efforts toward that end.

“This is really what you want to see from your state health department is moving the vaccine to where it can be used. Again, it’s a tragedy for vaccines to stay on the shelves,” he said.

Gravenstein thinks it is a good idea, as well.

“I think it’s important that the vaccines are out there get into people’s arms, they don’t work well on the shelf,” he said.

Stoecker says having nursing home staffers vaccinated could help facilities attract nursing home patients.

“Some nursing homes have over 90 percent of their staff vaccinated. That doesn’t appear to be the case in Louisiana. But you could imagine this is perhaps a selling point for nursing homes, advertising that their staffs are fully protected,” he said.

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