HHS to LTC operators: Step up your booster clinic timelines before year ends – McKnight’s Long Term Care News

Image of Adm. Rachel Levine; Image Credit: HHS
Adm. Rachel Levine; Image Credit: HHS

Long-term care operators who have not yet scheduled COVID-19 vaccine booster clinics in their facilities should plan to do so by the end of 2021.

That was the key message delivered Tuesday in a virtual town hall hosted by LeadingAge, AARP and the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living.

“We want to be very clear. Boosters offer optimal protection against this new variant. Don’t wait,“ Admiral Rachel L. Levine, assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told attendees.

“Helping your residents and your staff get boosted and protected is truly the best gift you can provide during this holiday season,” she added.

The omicron variant now accounts for 73% of COVID-19 cases nationwide and is at 90% in some areas. Cases are increasing among the unvaccinated in nursing homes and also in fully vaccinated residents who do not have the booster. But nursing home recipients who receive a booster dose are 10 times less likely to become infected with COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s a matter of weeks until the expected omicron surge is here and hospitals are potentially overwhelmed, Levine said. “Boosters take about 10 to 14 days to have their full impact, so it is imperative that you act right now, especially for those in your care.” 

People who are fully vaccinated are only about 35% protected against the omicron variant, but a booster shot kicks the protection up to about 75% effectiveness, said David R. Gifford, M.D., MPH., chief medical officer of the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living. 

There is early evidence that omicron may cause less severe illness than earlier dominant variants. Yet for people who remain unvaccinated, the science “couldn’t be more clear” that they are unprotected, added Levine, who also heads the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. “They are 14 times more likely to die and eight times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 compared to a fully vaccinated person.”

Levine acknowledged that the response to COVID-19 over the past two years has come at great personal cost for many working in the healthcare sector. 

“We have an urgent need to take action now, but there is hope,” she said. “Unlike 2020, last winter, we have the power to protect ourselves.”

Suggestions from a fellow LTC provider

Image of Walter Ramos, J.D.; Image credit: Rogerson Communities
Walter Ramos, J.D.; Image credit: Rogerson Communities

The keys to a successful booster campaign are messaging and connecting with local pharmacy providers who understand the culture and speak the languages of the communities they serve. That’s accordng to Rogerson Communities President and CEO Walter Ramos, J.D., whose facilities cover the full range of long-term care offerings, relayed his company’s experiences with vaccination campaigns during the call.

Rogerson Communities has invested in ongoing education for residents, their families and staff about the importance of vaccination and booster shots. The company also makes a concerted effort to “meet people where they are” when it works with outside providers, Ramos said. 

These best practices have helped to bring his 30 facilities to near 90% booster coverage.

“I can’t overemphasize how important it is to have a comfort level to receive the booster,” Ramos said. “And we ask that you find ways to help your residents feel as comfortable as they possibly can in order to receive the vaccine.” 

Rogerson has had considerable success in collaborating with both pharmacies and community health centers, Ramos added. Some of its facilities scheduled on-site booster clinics, and others were provided lists of all the pharmacies and local providers that are strong Rogerson partners, Ramos added. 

“In your community, you may want to check the CDC website,” he said. “They have a matching link to local pharmacies in your community that are providing vaccines and boosters.”

‘Booster’ vs. a ‘third shot’

Also during the call, speakers clarified some information regarding boosters. Levine addressed the distinction between a “booster” shot and a third vaccination, terms that have led to some confusion in recent months. Long-term care facility residents may qualify for one or the other.

An additional primary dose refers to the third dose of the vaccine administered to people who have immune deficiencies, and cannot mount a protective immune response after the initial vaccination, Levine said. They may require a third dose of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, either Pfizer or Moderna.

A booster dose refers to the subsequent dose of vaccine that is administered to enhance and restore protection by the primary vaccinations, which have waned over time. Boosters are approved now for everyone aged 16 years and older, six months past their vaccination for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Booster clinic resources

LeadingAge has posted resources and tips to aid long-term care providers in scheduling their booster clinics on its website.