Gov. John Bel Edwards and Louisiana health officials have been engaged in an all-out public relations campaign to convince skeptical Louisianians that COVID-19 is deadly, that the new Delta variant is even more infectious and that vaccination against the novel coronavirus is a proven method of avoiding life-threatening illness and death. Their campaign has included the promise that one lucky vaccinated Louisianian will win $1M in the state’s “Shot-For-A-Million” sweepstakes.
The campaign has also included a warning. On Thursday, Dr. Catherine O’Neal, the medical director of infection control and prevention at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, joined the governor’s press conference to say, “We only have two choices. We are either going to get vaccinated and end the pandemic, or we are going to accept death.”
However, some of the Louisianians who have had a front-row view of the virus’ deadly effects have been among the people reluctant to get the shots.
According to July 14 data from the Louisiana Department of Health, only 45% of the staff in Louisiana’s nursing homes are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Figures from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that across the country, 56% of nursing home staff are vaccinated.
In February, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, a nursing home association representing more than 14,000 facilities across the country, announced a goal to have 75% of people working in the nursing home industry inoculated by the end of June. More than two weeks past that deadline, the country as a whole and Louisiana, in particular, are far short of that goal.
Only 14 of the state’s 276 nursing homes — or about 5% — have reached the 75% vaccination goal set by the nursing home association, which means that 95% of Louisiana nursing homes have not.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Louisiana’s nursing home staff are the country’s least vaccinated, behind Florida, Missouri, Tennessee and Oklahoma. As low as the rate of vaccination is for Louisiana’s nursing home staff, it’s still higher than the vaccination rate of the state’s general population. Overall, 36.1% of Louisianians have been fully vaccinated, which means that in the U.S., the Bayou State is only ahead of Alabama, Mississippi, the Virgin Islands, Arkansas and Wyoming.
As for Louisiana’s nursing home residents themselves, 78% of them are completely vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Joe Kanter, the state’s chief medical officer, said in an interview Tuesday that both the general population numbers and the nursing home staff numbers are “a source of frustration and surprise for us.”
He said, “It’s surprising for a group of healthcare workers who had a front row seat in seeing COVID as bad as it gets. It was worse in nursing homes than it was anywhere else.”
Kevin Litten, a communications specialist for the Louisiana Department of Health, said 40% of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities were from infections that were acquired inside nursing homes.
According to the health department’s website, nine nursing homes in Louisiana had fewer than 20% of their staff fully vaccinated, and one nursing home had a completed rate in the single digits. The rate of vaccination at 12 nursing homes was unknown.
Here are the 14 Louisiana nursing homes that have reached the industry goal of having 75 percent of their staff vaccinated.
Nursing home residents and staff were among the first prioritized in Louisiana for the COVID-19 vaccine when it was first approved in December 2020. More than 2,700 nursing home residents in the state have died of COVID-19 during the pandemic.
The health department has learned from focus groups that nursing home workers’ vaccine hesitancy reflects broader concerns the community has about the vaccines, Kanter said.
“There’s a lot of myths that have become very pervasive. There’s a myth about fertility… based in absolutely no fact at all,” he said.
Nursing home workers may have also been lulled into a sense of security, Kanter said, as Louisiana nursing homes have reported zero deaths related to COVID-19 in the past two months, and report five current active cases, as of July 7, but the spread of the new Delta variant means Louisiana is entering another COVID-19 surge right now, Kanter said.
“COVID is going up, hospitalizations are going up, we’re entering into a surge right now,” he said. “So the risk in a nursing home and to nursing home staff is going to increase.”
Eddie Gardner is the chief operating officer of CommCare, a nonprofit that operates 14 nursing homes around the state, which according to state data have an average staff vaccination rate of 51%. The John Hainkel Center has the highest rate in the group at 83%, and the Ponchatoula Community Care Center has the lowest rate at 30%.
Gardner said CommCare has recently begun implementing lotteries for vaccinated employees at each home with a $100 cash prize each week and $1,000 prize at the end of the month as a way to incentivize getting more employees vaccinated.
Along with the vaccine lottery, Gardner said CommCare has run education campaigns for their nursing home employees on “the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.” In accordance with federal requirements, he said, unvaccinated employees are tested weekly for COVID-19 infection, he said, as opposed to monthly testing for employees who have been vaccinated.
“If you’ve done the test, it’s an invasive procedure,” Gardner said. “You would think that that would be (motivation) to get vaccinated more readily.”
He said CommCare has noticed more employees — 48 percent to 53 percent — have gotten vaccinated since the company began its lotteries for vaccinated employees.
Nursing homes across the state have implemented similar vaccine incentive programs where workers can get cash prizes or additional time off, Kanter said. A small number of nursing homes have also mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for their employees, he said.
The challenge is that there is a nursing shortage right now, Kanter said, so “nursing homes are worried about losing staff members.”
“At the end of the day, we want to provide a safe environment for the very vulnerable residents who live there and you want to make sure that staff members are protected themselves,” he said.
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