COVID Cases Among Nursing Home Staff Rise 80 Percent, Prompting Appeal for Shots

As COVID cases spike in nursing homes, with staff cases rising about 80 percent over the last week, federal health officials issued a plea for staff to get vaccinated, and for those eligible to get booster shots as soon as possible.

Nursing home staff cases rose 10,353 in the week ending December 27, a jump of about 80 percent from the week prior, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.

Resident case rates rose slightly, as residents are vaccinated at a significantly higher rate than staff, and death rates among residents stayed about the same as deaths among staff tripled to 58 over the last week.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a Thursday livestream that only 57 percent of nursing home residents and 25 percent of staff have received a booster dose of the COVID vaccine, both significantly below the national rates of 66 percent of those 65 and over, and 45 percent of fully vaccinated adults.

"We've got to change that," Becerra said.

The Omicron variant "is lightning fast, and we cannot afford another COVID-19 surge in nursing homes," Becerra said. "You know that. I know that. Higher numbers of COVID cases would likely once again have a devastating impact on our loved ones."

Nursing Home Residents Staff, COVID Vaccines
Federal health officials issued a plea Thursday to nursing home staff and residents to get vaccinated and for those eligible to receive booster doses as soon as possible. Pictured, a healthcare worker with American Medical Response, Inc. working with the Florida Department of Health in Broward administers a Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at the John Knox Village Continuing Care Retirement Community on January 6, 2021 in Pompano Beach, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Nursing homes are a testing ground for President Joe Biden's assertion that the United States is much better prepared to handle a surging virus than it was last winter. Although residents are a tiny proportion of the population, they represent a disproportionate share of Americans who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this year the advent of vaccines brought the virus under control in nursing homes and allowed them to reopen to visitors. But that return to normalcy could be in jeopardy as Omicron pushes COVID-19 cases to new highs.

The administration is urging some 1,400 federally funded community health centers across the country to partner with local nursing homes in a renewed vaccination campaign.

Nursing home workers were supposed to be fully vaccinated by January 4 under an earlier order issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which required staff at health care facilities that receive government money to get their shots. That directive got ensnared in litigation and the Supreme Court has set a special session next week to hear arguments on it, along with the much broader Biden administration vaccine mandate for workers at larger companies of all kinds. Together the orders would affect about 100 million employees.

"Once again nursing homes are really the ground zero," said Harvard health policy professor David Grabowski, who has tracked the impact of the pandemic on residents and staff. "How well we do in combating this virus can often be discerned by just looking at the nursing homes."

Grabowski said the Biden administration is right to raise the alarm now. "We see this time and time again: When staff (infection) rates go up, resident rates go up," he explained. Staffers unwittingly bring in the virus from surrounding communities, a common trigger for nursing home outbreaks.

Vaccines enabled nursing homes to weather the Delta variant surge earlier this year, and timely booster shots should go a long way toward blocking Omicron. "The more vaccines and boosters we have, the more lives we are going to save over the course of the winter," Grabowski said.

But some states are already seeing trouble.

COVID-19 outbreaks in Mississippi nursing homes have almost doubled in the past week, and officials say that indicates the state is probably heading into another major surge of virus cases and hospitalizations.

There were 63 outbreaks in Mississippi nursing homes Monday, about twice the number reported last week, state epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers wrote in a midweek memo to Mississippi hospitals and health care providers.

Along with other data, that points to "very rapid growth of COVID-19 infection and transmission...we have now entered our 5th wave of COVID-19 in the state," Byers wrote.

One of the major nursing home industry groups is backing the administration's push on boosters.

The American Health Care Association said in a statement it's asking members to "double down on their efforts to get as many residents and staff fully vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.