As omicron becomes the dominant strain of COVID-19 nationwide, Florida faces a steep challenge in ensuring vulnerable seniors have access to booster shots.
While two doses of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine may not prevent infection from the new variant, boosters appear to provide the strongest protection against hospitalization and death from omicron, which is more contagious than all previous versions of the coronavirus.
About 38 percent of fully vaccinated Florida nursing home residents have received a booster shot or additional primary dose, according to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. That’s compared to 55 percent of nursing home residents nationally.
The Sunshine State has one of the lowest proportions of boosted nursing home residents in the country, lagging behind all other states except Nevada and Arizona.
The percentage of nursing home residents who have received a booster dose has increased each week since the end of September, however, suggesting a promising upward trend.
Only 17 percent of nursing home staff have received a booster dose. Nationwide, roughly 24 percent of staffers have been boosted.
The Tampa Bay Times is relying on the most recent weekly Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, as Florida stopped publishing data about vaccinations and outbreaks in long-term care facilities earlier this year.
The data, which is from a weeklong period ending on Dec. 12, is self-reported by nursing homes and does not include assisted living facilities in the state.
It’s an incomplete picture, as only 546 nursing home facilities — about 70 percent of nursing homes in the state — reported data to the federal government.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data includes fully vaccinated people who received an “additional primary dose” — another shot with a full dose of the vaccine — due to a weakened immune system, meaning the actual percentage of nursing home residents who received a booster may be slightly smaller.
Using Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data from the previous week of Dec. 5, for example, the average percentage of fully vaccinated nursing home residents who received boosters was 34 percent, compared to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 35 percent.
Booster numbers are expected to rise in coming weeks amid concerns about the omicron variant.
Booster shots significantly increase the body’s level of antibodies capable of fighting against omicron, and early trials suggest they help prevent both symptomatic and severe illness in the face of an infection.
But people living in long-term care facilities may face additional barriers to access.
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Nursing home residents may not be able to leave their facilities to get a shot at nearby health centers due to mobility issues. At the same time, staff members must enter and exit the facility daily, making the risk of omicron transmission from the outside community high.
Kristen Knapp, spokesperson for the Florida Health Care Association, which represents 80 percent of nursing homes statewide, said facilities have been working with pharmacy partners to host booster clinics, as they did when vaccines first became available.
“Those started in November, however some of our pharmacies shared that there was a supply issue early on, but that seems to have been resolved and now those continue to get scheduled,” Knapp wrote in an emailed statement.
The association is also sending resources from the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living’s #GetVaccinated Campaign, Knapp said, and reminding nursing homes about the importance of boosters and federal guidance on safe visitations.
The Florida Department of Health has not yet responded to requests for comment regarding statewide plans to help seniors inside nursing homes access booster shots.
Nursing home residents in Florida still outpace the general population for boosters. Overall, only 30 percent of fully vaccinated people nationwide have received a booster shot.