Nursing home deaths from COVID-19 remain sharply down from their winter peaks, but the declines have now plateaued and more than 800 residents and staff members each month continue to die from the virus, according to an exclusive new analysis of federal data by AARP.
There was little change in the national rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in nursing homes from mid-March to mid-May, the analysis shows, even as rates in the wider community continued dropping. More than 10,000 residents and staff members are becoming newly infected each month.
Experts say that limited vaccine uptake among long-term care workers, worker shortages and the recent relaxation of nursing home restrictions might be causing the plateau, although more data and analysis are required.
Since the pandemic hit, COVID-19 has killed more than 184,000 residents and staff of long-term care, which includes nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other residential settings. Those deaths constitute almost a third of America's entire COVID-19 death toll, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In nursing homes, the infection and death rates peaked last winter, when close to 20,000 residents and staff were reported dead from COVID-19 in just four weeks from mid-December to mid-January; 1 in every 51 residents died from the virus.
Then, cases and deaths started to plummet, dropping more than 90 percent by mid-March, with the arrival of vaccines, tougher restrictions from governments, and high levels of natural immunity from months of high infection rates. Though the situation has improved, nursing home advocates say current COVID-19 rates in nursing homes shouldn't be accepted as the new normal.
"I certainly hope they're not,” says Charlene Harrington, a nursing home researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. “There's something terribly wrong if it is.”
Susan Reinhard, senior vice president and director of the AARP Public Policy Institute, says that “ten thousand deaths a year, just from COVID — that's a big number. Too big.”