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Nursing home Covid cases are rising as staff vaccination rates lag

Florida’s long-term care facilities account for more than a quarter of the cases with 564, up from 348 the previous week.
Florida Nursing Home Residents Receive 2nd COVID-19 Vaccination
A healthcare worker administers a Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at the John Knox Village Continuing Care Retirement Community on Jan. 6, 2021 in Pompano Beach, Fla.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

The number of nursing home patients and staff infected with Covid-19 rose sharply last week, according to federal data released Thursday, as the highly contagious delta variant menaces the country.

Cases among nursing home residents climbed by 38 percent – from 1,478 to 2,041 – between July 25 and Aug. 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Florida’s long-term care facilities account for more than a quarter of the cases with 564, up from 348 the previous week. The Sunshine State had the second highest rate of nursing home infections behind Alaska.

The number of nursing home residents nationwide who died of Covid-19 rose from 163 to 281 last week.

The death toll and case counts are still far lower than they were at the height of the pandemic due to the vaccines. But experts say the rising figures, while not unexpected given the trajectory among the general population, underscore the dangers of the delta variant.

Some 82 percent of nursing home residents across the country are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. The latest figures do not offer a breakdown of how many infected patients were fully vaccinated.

“What we have seen throughout the pandemic is when we see a rise in cases in the community, we are going to see it infiltrate the nursing homes,” said Dr. Morgan Katz, an assistant professor of medicine at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “And a lot of the reason for that is that only 60% of the staff is vaccinated and there is still a chance for potential entry into the facility.”

Katz referenced studies that show vaccinated nursing home residents are more vulnerable to the disease than vaccinated members of the general public.

“That’s why it’s so important that we adhere to layers of precaution,” she said.

In Arkansas, the number of nursing homes with residents infected with Covid-19 has quadrupled between July 12 and Aug. 2, according to data from its state health department, rising from 10 to 42.

As NBC News has previously reported, nursing home advocates are increasingly concerned about unvaccinated staff infecting residents of longterm care facilities.

Nationwide, cases among nursing home staff jumped 31 percent from 2,467 to 3,252 in the last week, according to the CDC data. While CDC collects weekly data on how many staff are vaccinated, the federal government has not mandated vaccines for nursing home staff.

The latest numbers show that 58 percent of nursing home staff nationwide are fully vaccinated.

In Massachusetts, where less than 75 percent of nursing home staff are fully vaccinated, Gov. Charlie Baker issued a statewide mandate Wednesday for all nursing home staff to get fully vaccinated by Oct. 10.

David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said he expects other states to follow Massachusetts’ lead.

“I think mandates are probably the right way to go,” he said.

But he cautioned that mandates could lead to low-paid nursing care workers leaving their jobs to find employment elsewhere. “Any mandate should be coupled with an effort to improve working conditions,” Grabowski said.

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said in a briefing on Thursday that the majority of cases in long-term care settings are among employees and not residents. The state requires all staff to get vaccinated or get tested two times a week.

A spokesperson for Louisiana’s state health agency told NBC News the state is working closely with the state’s association of nursing homes to strongly encourage vaccinations among staff.

In Arkansas, another hotspot, there is no requirement for vaccines.

“We do not have one and are not considering one,” said Amy Webb, a spokesperson for the state agency that oversees nursing homes.