The rate of COVID-19 infections is declining among residents of long term care facilities, largely due to vaccinations. This is good news for hospice providers who have been struggling to gain access to facility-bound patients during the pandemic.
Long term care facilities have been among the hardest hit by the killer virus. To date, more than 611,000 of their residents have contracted the novel coronavirus, leading to 121,772 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Facility staff have also suffered, with 525,400 infections nationwide and 1,499 fatalities.
The situation may be improving as more vaccine doses reach the public. While restrictions remain in place during the vaccination process, hospice providers could soon see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“We are anticipating that nursing facilities will begin to open back up to hospice [interdisciplinary team] members as early as March,” Catherine Dehlin, regional vice president of operations and sales for Three Oaks Hospice, told Hospice News. “We are experiencing a tightening of closures to hospice during the actual vaccinations process, likely due to the strain on the staff in administering the vaccine.”
Accessing patients in facilities has been a top concern for hospice leaders during 2020 and 2021, as nursing homes have imposed strict limitations as to who may enter due to fears of spreading the virus. While in many cases hospice nurses have been allowed to come in, many patients have not been able to receive the full benefit of the interdisciplinary care model.
Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) show that numbers are starting to come down as more residents become vaccinated. During the week of Jan. 17, about 17,500 new infections occurred in nursing homes. Just one month earlier around Dec. 20, weekly cases exceeded 32,000.
Thus far, about 3.7 million long term care residents and staff have received their first vaccine dose, and more than 1 million have received their second, according to the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL).
“The decline in new cases three weeks after the first dose, compared to facilities having vaccine clinics later, is encouraging and signals that the vaccine may decrease the spread of COVID, a finding not shown in the trials,” said David Gifford, M.D., chief medical officer for AHCA/NCAL. “If verified with additional data, this could expedite the reopening of long term care facilities to visitors, which is vital to residents’ health and well being,”
Nursing homes in which most patients have already been vaccinated have seen a 48% drop in new COVID cases, compared to a 21% decline among facilities who have not yet administered vaccines, according to AHCA/NCAL. Similar reductions have been observed among staff.
While these developments may help hospices return their full range of in-person services to patients in facilities, a critical challenge remains. They must secure vaccinations for their own staff. While some providers have been able to develop robust vaccination programs, progress has been mixed nationwide. Hospices in some states have not been recognized as priority recipients.
“In many of our markets, facilities are already asking about the rate of vaccinations among our staff and comparing them to competitor’s rates,” Dehlin said. “While we haven’t seen evidence that vaccinations will be mandated by nursing facilities, they are certainly pushing for a high percentage to continue the partnership.”