Caregiver walking with woman using a walker

As COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to drop in long-term care settings, calls for reopening communities facilities are increasing.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released interim guidelines on easing restrictions for fully vaccinated individuals in non-healthcare settings.

The National Center for Assisted Living is taking a more measured approach for assisted living, telling McKnight’s Senior Living that communities “must remain vigilant until most residents and staff are fully vaccinated, and public health officials determine it is safe to reopen.”

The organization said it supports masking, social distancing, frequent handwashing and continued restrictions on social activities and visitors “for the time being.”

“We support the scientific experts on what’s best for our residents and staff members, but anything we can do to expedite reopening would be a tremendous benefit to our residents and their loved ones,” an NCAL spokesperson said.

Vaccines work

In an interview Friday morning with CNN, Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of NCAL and its sister organization, the American Health Care Association, with a membership of skilled nursing facilities, said that assisted living and nursing home providers across the country are reporting the same news: no COVID-19 cases following rollout of the vaccine for residents and staff members.

“It’s just absolutely astonishing,” Parkinson said. “We all thought that the vaccine would reduce cases. I don’t think any of us thought we would have zero cases, but that’s the case in almost all the nursing homes and assisted living buildings across the country. It’s amazing and fantastic.”

The skilled nursing sector reported an 82% decline in weekly coronavirus cases among nursing home residents since peaking in mid-December at 33,300 cases. No collective national data exist on cases and deaths in assisted living communities because state governments track those statistics, but AHCA / NCAL said as of March 1, assisted living communities had completed 95% of their first-round vaccination clinics and 75% of second clinics. Third-round clinics are expected to be completed this month.

According to the CDC COVID Data Tracker, 7.4 million vaccine doses have been administered to residents and staff members in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted living communities.

Parkinson attributed the severe drop in coronavirus cases to two things: the vaccine itself and states’ prioritizing long-term care in establishing on-site vaccination clinics.

“It’s hard to put into words how well this vaccine works,” Parkinson said. “There were very few side effects with these shots, and the results speak for themselves. In most facilities right now, there is absolutely no COVID.”

Priority for long-term care needs to continue with the federal government setting aside doses for new residents and staff members, he said.

Staff uptake

At the same time, the long-term care industry is struggling to increase vaccination uptake among staff members. 

The CDC reported that staff uptake of the vaccine at 40% after the first vaccine clinics were held in skilled nursing facilities, compared with an 80% uptake in skilled nursing residents. AHCA / NCAL said that number is comparable to the majority of the public and that the same assumptions can be made for assisted living, for which statistics are more difficult to come by.

AHCA and LeadingAge set a target of getting 75% of the about 1.5 million nursing home staff members vaccinated by June 30. They said they plan to hit that goal by tackling misinformation about the vaccines through ongoing education, town halls and special webinars. 

Although there are no systems in place to monitor progress of vaccine uptake in assisted living communities NCAL said it is encouraging such communities to meet this goal as well.