Coronavirus is spreading in NY nursing homes amid COVID vaccine race. What you need to know
Coronavirus infections and deaths are rising in New York nursing homes amid a race to deploy a COVID-19 vaccine among frail and elderly people most vulnerable to the respiratory disease.
Since late September, at least 2,240 nursing home residents have contracted COVID-19 in New York, resulting in 219 deaths, according to USA TODAY Network New York analysis of the latest federal data through Nov. 22.
Of the deaths, about 45% hit during a two-week stretch as infections spiked last month inside nursing homes, offering an early warning of the virus’ renewed assault on long-term care facilities just days before the expected arrival of 170,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine in New York as soon as this weekend.
And while state government plans to prioritize all 170,000 initial doses for nursing home residents and staff, the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine involved requires each person to take two doses separated by 21 days to build up immunity, meaning New York nursing homes will remain at risk into January.
In many ways, the mounting coronavirus infections in nursing homes, including thousands of workers, underscored the importance of a dire push underway to save lives with the end of the pandemic in sight.
“Because of the exhaustion among workers and because many facilities didn’t learn lessons from the early part of the pandemic, I’m very worried that this second wave could be disastrous for nursing home residents,” said Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition.
Amid the growing concerns over COVID-19 surges statewide, Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week outlined plans for potentially renewing regional shutdowns if hospital capacity nears critical levels, as health officials and experts urged Americans to limit holiday gatherings and avoid nonessential interactions to curb the virus’ spread.
Meanwhile, advocates pushed New York nursing home operators and regulators to enforce laws aimed at improving infection-control practices and oversight of long-term care facilities, citing past failures linked to many of the 6,900 confirmed and suspected COVID-19 deaths of residents in the facilities during the pandemic.
“We need to prevent a repeat of this epic tragedy, and one of the keys is ensuring residents’ families can see what’s going on inside their loved ones’ nursing homes,” Beth Finkel, AARP director for New York, said in a statement Tuesday.
How COVID infections hit NY nursing homes this fall
After a relative lull this summer, COVID-19 began infiltrating New York nursing homes again this fall despite mandatory testing of staff, infection-control crackdowns and other governmental precautions, such as strict restrictions on visitation.
The spikes in infections hitting the long-term care facilities generally tracked the virus' growing spread in surrounding communities since late September, federal data show.
By late November, the weekly tally of confirmed infections among nursing home residents had jumped to 513, up from 89 on Sept. 27. And the weekly tally of the virus’ spread among nursing home workers was three times higher than early fall, with about 2,600 confirmed COVID-19 infections among staff overall between Sept. 28 and Nov. 22.
The current surge, however, has thus far fallen short of the devastation wrought during New York’s initial pandemic peak this spring, when a vast majority of the COVID-19 deaths inside nursing homes occurred.
For example, the weekly infection tally was 513 residents for the week ending Nov. 22, with 54 deaths attributed to the virus during that span, federal data show. By contrast, about 1,100 resident infections were confirmed during the week ending May 31, with 250 deaths.
State health officials and nursing home operators have emphasized asymptomatic nursing home workers infected with the virus fueled the crisis this spring. And the concerns prompted testing mandates for nursing home staff that health officials say helped limit cases this fall.
In May, Cuomo issued an executive order requiring twice weekly COVID-19 testing of nursing home staff to limit the risk. It was reduced to once-a-week testing in June as infections slowed statewide, but the resurgence last month triggered a return to twice-weekly testing of staff in the hardest hit communities.
Another factor potentially involved in recent infections in nursing homes was the decision to ease restrictions on visitation on Sept. 17, when the state Department of Health reduced the threshold that a facility must go COVID-free before resuming visits to 14 days from 28 days.
But Mollot asserted the resurgence of the virus in nursing homes this fall stemmed from fundamental health and safety failures that went unresolved, in general, despite staff testing and visitation restrictions.
“The failure to complete basic infection control and prevention is the key,” he said, adding the pandemic laid bare the industry’s historic struggles with curbing infectious diseases due in part to insufficient staffing and training.
Many nursing home operators, however, asserted they are far better equipped to handle COVID-19 infections now than in the spring. They cited state mandates that require a 60-days stockpile of personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, as well as targeted health inspections this year that identified and corrected safety violations.
Further, industry leaders described ensuring a rapid COVID-19 vaccination effort focused on nursing home residents as one of the most crucial undertakings of the pandemic.
"The single best way to very quickly reduce the number of COVID deaths is to get the population vaccinated who is dying from the disease," said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, representing thousands of nursing homes across the nation.
“A one-month delay in distributing the vaccine to all long term care residents and caregivers, could result in more than 20,000 of our residents losing their life when a vaccine could have saved them,” he added.
Why NY nursing homes' COVID risks remain shrouded in secrecy
Despite the alarms triggered by federal data, it is difficult to evaluate some aspects of the pandemic response in New York nursing homes because state officials refuse to release key details about the situation.
For example, the state Health Department has declined to release real-time statistics on coronavirus infections among nursing home residents, leaving gaps in public understanding of the current risk due to lags in federal data collection and reporting.
The number of New York nursing home residents who died due to COVID-19 after being transferred to hospitals has also been shrouded in secrecy, despite experts asserting it has hindered attempts to improve health and safety precautions.
On Aug. 3, state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker told state lawmakers he was withholding details of nursing home resident deaths at hospitals in part due to concerns about double counting the fatalities.
At the time, Zucker asserted state health officials were attempting to verify the overall death toll and would release it upon completion.
Finkel, the AARP director, cited the undisclosed deaths at hospitals in a statement urging New Yorkers to “be vigilant and proactively monitor their loved ones’ homes” as infections mounted inside the facilities.
The group, which advocates for the elderly, noted a state law enacted in June requires facilities to provide family and guardians with regular updates on COVID-19 infections, deaths and other pandemic response details, as well as free daily access to remote virtual videoconferencing or similar virtual communication methods to connect to residents.
It added New Yorkers can file complaints with state officials through the online Nursing Home Complaint Form or by calling the state’s nursing home complaint hotline toll-free at 1-888-201-4563.
Karen Weintraub of USA TODAY contributed to this report.
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