Hundreds of nursing homes across New York state that are struggling to vaccinate workers remain at heightened risk of COVID-19 outbreaks, despite recent declines in coronavirus infections.
About 250 nursing homes are lagging the state’s COVID-19 vaccination rate for long-term care workers, according to a USA TODAY Network analysis of state data. Overall, 62% of nursing home staff statewide have been at least partially vaccinated in New York.
While 85% of New York’s nursing home residents have been partially or fully vaccinated, the likelihood of future outbreaks is higher in facilities where fewer workers choose to get shots. It also increases the odds of breakthrough infections among vaccinated people, which are exceedingly rare.
The problem is acute in some nursing homes across the Finger Lakes, Mid-Hudson, Southern Tier and Mohawk Valley regions, where about 50 facilities had partially vaccinated less than half of their respective workers as of last week.
Among them is Creekview Nursing and Rehab in Gates, which has a staff vaccination rate of about 36%.
The review involved data that includes all New York nursing home workers receiving at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as fully vaccinated staff who got two doses. The percentages below reflect a total of partially and fully vaccinated workers as of June 1.
Among the findings:
- A total of 16 nursing homes in the Finger Lakes region, which the state counts as Rochester and the surrounding area, vaccinated less than half of workers, including 5 facilities reaching below 40% of staff.
- Across the Mid-Hudson region, about 30 nursing homes vaccinated less than 61% of staff.
- In the Southern Tier and Mohawk Valley, 14 nursing homes vaccinated less than half of workers, including one Oneida County facility with the second-lowest percentage statewide, at about 16% of staff.
State health officials released the vaccination percentages for nursing homes and assisted living facilities last month following requests from advocates and media outlets, including the USA TODAY Network New York. Previously, it was released by county and region.
The data shed light on a stagnated vaccination push inside nursing homes, which were granted early access to shots in December but today still trail New York hospitals and assisted living facilities, which have partially vaccinated 72% and 69% of workers, respectively.
Meanwhile, nursing homes are under increasing pressure to vaccinate more workers to protect the frail and elderly residents most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness, according to advocates and trade groups.
“We do hear from many families who are upset that the staff are not being required to get the vaccine,” said Richard Mollot, executive director for the Long Term Care Community Coalition.
Beyond health risks, family members fear unvaccinated nursing home workers could fuel outbreaks that disrupt visitation, which resumed after authorities in March relaxed restrictions that kept residents isolated over the prior year to limit the virus’ spread, Mollot added.
Concerns about failures to vaccinate nursing home workers come after COVID-19 ravaged long-term care facilities nationally, killing more than 13,700 nursing home residents in New York alone.
What NY nursing homes say about COVID vaccines
So far, New York nursing homes have resisted imposing vaccine mandates for workers, with some instead offering incentives like gift cards and flexible scheduling to boost vaccination rates, according to Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the Health Facilities Association.
“To just issue a blanket mandate could have a negative impact on your workforce,” Hanse said, adding the pandemic only deepened the nursing home industry’s long-standing struggles with staffing shortages.
“We are in a crisis now. Facilities throughout the state are struggling to recruit and retain workers … so you really want your employees to feel valued,” he added.
Many nursing homes have also focused on educational meetings and outreach targeting workers who decline to take COVID-19 vaccines, as administrators promote the shots as safe and effective.
Several hospital groups across the country, however, are requiring workers receive the COVID-19 vaccines amid politically charged debate over the issue. One key legal factor is the vaccines are administered under emergency use authorization, as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna seek full federal approval for the shots.
In New York, a growing list of colleges, including the State University of New York system, have announced plans to require students receive COVID-19 vaccines before returning in the fall. But hospitals and other businesses have yet to pursue COVID vaccine mandates.
How COVID vaccines reached NY nursing home
The scope of nursing home COVID-19 deaths nationally prompted a federal program that tapped pharmacies to bring vaccines directly to long-term care facilities during the initial rollout in December and January.
Since then, COVID deaths among New York nursing home residents have plummeted about 98% from a winter surge peak in mid-January. The weekly death toll dropped to 8 residents for the week ending May 30, down from 410 in mid-January, federal data show.
During that span, weekly coronavirus case counts among residents also drastically declined to 57 from more than 2,200 in mid-January.
Further, coronavirus cases among nursing home staff declined about 96%. The weekly infection tally stood at 90 recently, down from 2,000 during the winter surge.
But the COVID-19 turnaround in nursing homes also unfolded as coronavirus cases declined in the community at large, underscoring the links between infection rates inside and outside nursing homes.
“It’s what we saw throughout the pandemic,” Hanse said. “When the prevalence of COVID is high in the community … it impacts the facilities.”
In other words, nursing homes with a low percentage of vaccinated workers remained at higher risk of outbreaks as long as the virus is spreading in the community.
Despite the variance in vaccination rates, however, nursing homes in New York are still required to follow pandemic safety precautions that likely contributed to declining infections, Hanse noted, citing visitor screening protocols and mandated COVID-19 testing of all staff.
How NY nursing homes target vaccine reluctance
One of the facilities focused on vaccine education outreach for workers is Hill Haven Nursing Home in Monroe County, which has about 40% of staff vaccinated, according to Veronica Chiesi Brown, a spokesperson for its parent network, Rochester Regional Health.
“We have not offered any incentives to get vaccinated other than to reiterate the impact it can have on the health of the employee, their family, co-workers, friends, and the community,” she said in a statement.
Centers Health Care network, which has more than 40 affiliated nursing homes statewide, also launched a vaccine awareness campaign including posters in breakrooms and throughout its facilities, according to a spokesman.
“Knowing that there would be some hesitation, natural fears, and a measure of cultural sensitivity towards new vaccines our facilities have been providing ongoing education surrounding the safety and efficiency of the vaccine,” Jeff Jacomowitz, the spokesman, said in a statement.
Besides Creekview in Gates, the network includes the Oneida Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Utica, which has the second-lowest staff vaccination percentages statewide, at 16%; and New Paltz Center for Rehabilitation in Ulster County, which has a staff vaccination rate of about 37%.
Still, some Centers Health Care nursing homes have seen continued progress in vaccinating workers since the initial rollout in December, Jacomowitz noted.
“As this trend continues to grow and the increased education takes root the overall perception towards the vaccine is changing,” he said, adding the goal is to soon vaccinate 100% of staff.
Meanwhile, federal regulators only recently issued guidance allowing businesses, including nursing homes, to require workers get the COVID-19 vaccines.
State officials and legal experts have also raised concerns that mandates could face legal challenges, citing the vaccines’ emergency use authorization, which allows for distribution prior to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalizing a standard review.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine last month became the first to apply for the full approval, but the timeline remains unclear. Moderna applied for full approval for its vaccine last week.
How nursing homes’ COVID vaccinations vary
Some New York nursing homes with low staff vaccination rates also had among the highest COVID-19 death tolls among residents, though many deaths came during last spring’s coronavirus surge and were unrelated to vaccines.
Further, several nursing homes with low staff vaccination rates also had comparatively low COVID death tolls, underscoring how other factors such as resident vaccination rates, facility size and infection-control practices impacted the severity of outbreaks.
White Plains Center for Nursing Care, for example, had the lowest percentage of workers vaccinated in the Mid-Hudson region, at 27%. It is an 88-bed facility and reported five resident deaths due to COVID.
In contrast, Hill Haven nursing home in Rochester had about 40% of staff vaccinated. It is a 288-bed facility and reported 66 resident deaths due to COVID.
Seneca Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Waterloo, however, had about 82% of its staff vaccinated. It is a 120-bed facility and reported five resident deaths due to COVID.
In other regions, Sapphire Nursing at Wappingers in Dutchess County vaccinated about 38% of staff. It is a 62-bed facility and reported one resident death due to COVID-19.
Susquehanna Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Broome County had vaccinated about 48% of staff. It is a 160-bed facility and reported 22 confirmed and presumed resident deaths linked to COVID-19.
USA TODAY contributed to this report.
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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter: @DRobinsonLohud.
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