More than 1,300 nursing home residents died from COVID-19 over a four-week period ending Jan. 22, according to a new AARP analysis of federal data. The toll represents the highest death rate since the omicron variant surge last winter. It’s also likely to mark the third year in a row that deaths have peaked in winter.
As deaths rose, only about half of nursing home residents nationwide and less than a quarter of health care staff were up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations. That left roughly 600,000 nursing home residents and 1.6 million staff behind on shots as of Jan. 22.
AARP’s findings are “pretty disheartening,” says Priya Chidambaram, a senior policy analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation who also tracks COVID-19 in nursing homes. “With the really low rates of vaccination and the really high rates of death, we come to the natural conclusion that maybe higher vaccination rates and booster rates could have prevented some of those deaths.”
Vaccination rates in nursing homes have been lagging for months. Bivalent boosters, designed to protect against the omicron subvariants as well as previous strains, have been available since fall, but the percentage of residents who are up to date on vaccinations has crept up just 11 percentage points nationwide, to 51 percent, between mid-October 2022 and mid-January 2023.
Over the same period, the rate of up-to-date nursing home workers has actually declined by 3 percentage points nationwide, to 22 percent.
Residents and staff are considered “up to date” once they’ve gotten the bivalent booster, or if they completed their primary vaccination series or had another booster within the past two months.
“The downward trend in staff vaccination is particularly concerning,” says Jennifer Schrack, an associate professor in the epidemiology of aging division at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “People have COVID fatigue. They want to go back to normal. This is ironic because vaccination is likely the best way for us to return to some state of normalcy.”