We have understood since the early days of the pandemic that older Americans with comorbidities were particularly at risk of dying from COVID. Therefore, it should have been clear that the virus would play havoc in places where that group was congregated – nursing homes and other senior care facilities.
The official numbers show that about a third of all COVID fatalities have occurred in nursing homes and other long-term senior care facilities. That percentage is likely significantly understated because many states, including Texas, do not track the outcome for residents who leave the facility after contracting COVID. My guess is that we will ultimately conclude that at least half of COVID fatalities came from infections that originated in a senior care facility.
Given this toll, it is obvious that everything should be done to reduce senior care residents’ exposure to COVID. The most obvious way to do that is require everyone working in one of these facilities to be vaccinated. Yet currently, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) estimates that only 60% of senior care employees have been vaccinated.
The industry has been diligently working to get employees vaccinated, but most care organizations have concluded that because of labor storages, they cannot mandate the vaccine on their own. Since every facility is struggling to get staff, they are concerned that if they require the vaccine employees will quit and move across the street to a facility that does not require the vaccine.
The industry faced a similar dilemma with the flu vaccine. Flu, while not nearly as deadly for seniors as COVID, is still very dangerous. The solution was that the federal government issued a regulation that required all senior care facility employees to be vaccinated. As a result, all senior care facility employees are required to get the flu shot each year.
The industry has been lobbying the federal government to also require the COVID vaccine. But the federal government has inexplicably declined to require the COVID vaccine. Of course, all senior care facilities are highly regulated by the state, which could also require all employees to be vaccinated. But pleas by the industry at both the federal and state level have largely fallen on deaf ears. A few other states have recently begun to require vaccinations for employees. Of course, as you might expect, Texas is not one of the states that has required the vaccine for senior care facilities. This is particularly concerning because vaccination rates for both senior care facility residents and employees in Texas are among the lowest in the country.
We are now seeing a surge in new cases and fatalities in senior facilities. This wave could have been largely avoided had either the federal government or the state acted to require the vaccine. While it is pretty late in the game at this point, one or both should immediately mandate the vaccine for employees. Frankly, I would even go further and mandate it for any vendor, contractor, volunteer or visitor entering a senior care facility.
We have known almost from the beginning of the pandemic that our seniors living in congregate settings were at a much, much higher risk of dying from COVID than the general population. Making sure that people were not bringing COVID into these facilities was beyond obvious and the most effective way to do that is to require every person walking through the door to be vaccinated. The fact that neither the federal government nor the state has done so is a shocking display of political cowardice and a complete abdication of our obligation to protect seniors.