A new report released on March 30 shows a dramatic decline in COVID-19 cases in U.S. nursing homes, thanks to initial vaccine allocations prioritized for the nation’s elders and people with disabilities in such facilities, advocates said.

The American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL), which issued the report, said the COVID numbers are “incredibly encouraging” and called on Congress to consider the industry’s Care For Our Seniors Act to address systemic issues facing the nursing home sector and prevent another COVID-type crisis.

In detail, the report said recent data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) show nursing homes have seen a 96 percent decline in new COVID cases among residents since the peak during the week of Dec. 20, 2020, when there were more than 30,000 new resident cases. Along with the lowest number of new COVID cases, AHCA/NCAL’s new report shows COVID-related deaths in nursing homes declined by 91 percent since that December peak.

“We are not out of the woods yet, but these numbers are incredibly encouraging and a major morale booster for frontline caregivers who have been working tirelessly for more than a year to protect our residents,” said Mark Parkinson, president and chief executive officer of AHCA/NCAL.

“This trend shows that when long term care is prioritized, as with the national vaccine rollout, we can protect our vulnerable elderly population. Now we need Congress to prioritize our nursing homes for the long-term by considering the initiatives in the Care For Our Seniors Act to improve the quality of care for our residents.”

AHCA and LeadingAge recently released the reform agenda, the Care For Our Seniors Act, to address long-standing challenges affecting the quality of care provided in America’s nursing homes. The organizations say the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated systemic issues impacting the nursing home sector, such as workforce shortages, aging physical plants, and underfunded government reimbursement for care.

The act focuses on four keys for improvement, which include enhancing the quality of care with enhanced standards for infection preventionists, requiring that each nursing home have a registered nurse on staff, 24-hours-per-day, and requiring a minimum 30-day supply of personal protective equipment in all nursing centers.

The initiative also calls for a multi-phase, tiered approach to attract, retain, and develop more long term care professionals leveraging federal, state, and academic institutions, AHCA/NCAL said.

While recommending several new ways to improve oversight and processes to support better care and protect residents, the proposal also aims to modernize nursing homes by looking at how the industry could shift to more private rooms, promoting resident privacy and supporting infection control best practices.

AHCA and LeadingAge said such reforms will be costly but are long overdue. “The nursing home sector has been facing a financial crisis for years even before COVID due to low Medicaid reimbursement, the primary coverage for nursing home residents,” AHCA said.

“The Care For Our Seniors Act calls for an increase in federal Medicaid funds provided to states and bringing the Medicaid rate up to equal the cost of care. Currently, Medicaid only covers 70 to 80 percent of the costs to care for a nursing home resident.”

Parkinson added that with a growing elderly population soon needing long term care services, the moment for Congress to act is now.

“We must pay tribute to all those who lost their lives to this vicious virus and resolve to bring forth a brighter future,” he said. “We have already seen what progress can be made when policymakers come together to make long term care residents a priority, and through these reforms, we can significantly improve the quality of care for our current residents and generations to come.”