We must protect nursing homes against latest COVID surge | Editorial
The new booster shots available for residents and staff are key in the fight to keep COVID from spreading through nursing homes.
CVS Health pharmacy manager Aylen Amestoy answers questions about the newest COVID-19 vaccine shot for Sasan Sowlati at a CVS in Miami on Sept. 14.
CVS Health pharmacy manager Aylen Amestoy answers questions about the newest COVID-19 vaccine shot for Sasan Sowlati at a CVS in Miami on Sept. 14. [ D.A. VARELA | Miami Herald ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 4

Americans tired of hearing about COVID-19 may greet the latest vaccine with a collective yawn, but residents and staff at nursing homes cannot be as cavalier. With infections rising in these facilities, governments and industry must work to protect those living and working in group settings from this potential killer.

The rollout of the booster appears to be slow-going just as COVID presents a resurgent threat to America’s elderly, according to a report last week by KFF Health News, the national news organization formerly known as Kaiser Health News.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the latest vaccine on Sept. 12, many nursing homes will not begin inoculations until this month or even November. The delays come as infections in nursing homes are rising steeply, to nearly 1%, or 9.7 per 1,000 residents, as of mid-September, more than quadrupling from a low of 2.2 per 1,000 residents in mid-June.

The holdup was caused in part by the formally declared end of the COVID public health emergency in May, which meant the federal government stopped purchasing and distributing COVID vaccines. That has created a logistics gap for the latest vaccine and confusion for distributors and nursing home operators alike as Americans seek the latest defense before the full start of the winter season.

Nationally, 62% of nursing home residents are up to date on their vaccines, meaning they received the second booster available before the new shot that’s becoming available. That reflects a deeper commitment among older Americans generally to keep current on their vaccines, but a troubling gap in that age group remains. In Florida, only 52% of nursing home residents report being up to date. That’s a problem, given Florida’s older population, which calls out for better public guidance.

The situation is worse among nursing home staff. Nationally, only 25% of nursing home employees are up to date. Again, the Florida figures are lower, with 19% of staff up to date. That threat is amplified in a group home setting, where staff provide meals, activities and other all-around care, and where employees often hold second and third jobs elsewhere, compounding the opportunity for infection.

While mandates are a thing of the past, the federal government and the states still have a leadership role to play. Public health authorities need to use their pulpits to urge people to get vaccinated, and officials need to provide whatever administrative and financial support possible to make supplies more readily available.

This is hardly unknown or ancient territory; industry, government and health providers already know how to get COVID vaccines to the public. More to the point, governors in states with older populations, such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis, also showed early on during the pandemic how to prioritize a limited supply by putting seniors and other vulnerable populations first. The same game plan should apply here. Even Florida’s narrow guidance on the latest vaccine recommends that those 65 and older talk to their doctor about getting inoculated.

The updated vaccines are available at no cost to most adults in the U.S. through their private health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. The CDC has arranged for 25 million to 30 million adults lacking health insurance coverage to get free COVID shots at certain pharmacies and health centers. Now authorities need to talk up the boosters, and work hard, especially to increase vaccinations among nursing home residents and employees. Even one needless death is too many.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.