Florida’s nursing home residents are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. But less than a third of them have gotten new vaccines tailored to better combat virus variants — even as deaths and infections continue to rise.
The state has the fifth-lowest percentage of nursing home residents up to date with COVID-19 shots in the U.S., according to federal data from the week ending Jan. 14.
“That’s disappointing,” said Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist. “It is a simple way to improve our protection against the disease.”
Only Arizona, Texas, Arkansas and South Carolina have lower rates than the Sunshine State. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists report an “urgent need” to improve vaccination levels in nursing homes across the country.
The health agency recommended updated versions of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines on Sept. 12. Since then, Florida nursing homes have reported at least 46 COVID-19 deaths and more than 4,200 cases among residents, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Those numbers pale in comparison to earlier surges of the pandemic. Prior vaccinations and exposures to the pathogen have blunted COVID-19′s impacts, said Morgan Katz, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University.
But Florida’s latest vaccine figures are concerning, she said.
The virus has more opportunities to spread and cause severe illness when fewer people get inoculated, said Katz, who has studied COVID-19 in nursing homes.
Since federal health authorities recommended the latest shots, nursing homes in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties have seen at least five COVID-19 deaths and over 700 cases among residents, according to the Times analysis.
During the week ending Jan. 7, roughly three-quarters of local facilities reported that most of their residents were behind on their vaccines.
One Clearwater nursing home, Gulfside Health and Rehabilitation Center, saw 14 cases among residents, the area’s highest infection count that week, according to federal data.
The facility reported that none of its residents were up to date with COVID-19 inoculation. It didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Kristen Knapp, spokesperson for the Florida Health Care Association, which represents 80% of nursing homes statewide, said her group provides facilities with educational resources stressing the importance of vaccination. The industry is working to ensure residents’ health and safety, Knapp said.
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The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates long-term care centers, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
It’s challenging to contain virus transmission in nursing homes, with visitors entering facilities and older adults socializing and eating together, Katz said. Staff must also provide close-quarters care for prolonged periods of time.
Roughly 8% of Florida’s nursing home staff were up to date with COVID-19 vaccines during the week ending Dec. 31, reflecting a national trend, according to federal data. The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services ended its vaccine mandate for nursing home workers last summer.
The low number of inoculations among residents and staff could be due to “vaccine fatigue” and a perception that COVID-19 is now a mild ailment, Katz said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointee to Florida’s surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, has urged providers to stop using the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, citing a debunked theory about DNA contamination. Salemi, the University of South Florida expert, said the benefits of getting vaccinated typically far outweigh the risks for nursing home residents.
“Whether Florida’s low standing reflects (a nursing home’s) lack of diligence in providing access or a trend of residents opting not to be vaccinated is something that the state should assess,” wrote AARP Florida spokesperson Rick DelaHaya in an email.