Leaders of the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) on Dec. 7 urged all state governors and public health officials to prioritize long term care (LTC) residents and staff for COVID-19 vaccinations as the surest way to quickly reduce the nation’s already staggering mortality rate blamed on the virus.

“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 lives when a vaccine could have saved them,” said Mark Parkinson, president and chief executive officer, AHCA/NCAL.
He said officials not putting the nation’s frail and elderly, and the people who care for them, at the top of the vaccination list would be making a mistake.

“If not vaccinated first, it would be an enormous public health blunder. Anyone getting vaccinated in the top tier is helpful [such as health care workers], but the best way to reduce COVID deaths is to vaccinate those dying most from the disease, which is long term care.”

Calling COVID the worst public health disaster in the history of the country, Parkinson said the death rates for those 80 years and older and suffering from comorbidities is truly staggering at some 20 percent, which makes the people most prone to be in that category in LTC some 600 times more likely to die from COVID than people in their 20s.

And, to make matters worse the infection rates are peaking now, some eight months since the previous spikes when the COVID pandemic first ravaged the nation in March and April.

“Nursing homes are seeing the worst outbreak since last spring with a record number of new cases (18,000-plus per week) due to community spread rapidly increasing across the U.S. and especially in the Midwest,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are also seeing COVID-related deaths in nursing homes increase to more than 2,000 per week.

“In order to protect our residents and caregivers, long term care providers need states to distribute the vaccine as soon as humanly possible and take aggressive action to reduce the level of COVID in their state,” he said.

Since vaccine trials have proven effective in triggering immune responses in Phase 3 clinical trials, Parkinson said his main two asks right now are for every governor and public health official to make LTC residents and staff the top of the top priority list, and to set a goal of having the second of two doses of the vaccine accomplished by March 1.

He also said Congress “urgently” needs to replenish emergency funding “to help our providers to pay for PPE [personal protective equipment] supplies, testing, and additional staffing.”

Also speaking on the subject, David Gifford, MD, AHCA/NCAL chief medical officer and senior vice president of quality and regulatory affairs, said LTC providers in nursing homes and assisted living communities stand ready to help facilitate this monumental endeavor in delivering the vaccines to those most in need.

“There are a number of logistics still to confirm, many of which must be clarified by federal and state governments. We are eager for government officials to ensure long term care providers have the information and tools they need to make this effort successful,” he said.

“This is an ever-evolving situation, and governors may continue to change their distribution plans. We are urging all state public health officials to follow the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations by including long term care residents and staff in the first phase of vaccine distribution. Given our vulnerable population and rapidly increasing cases, we are urging states to provide the first available vaccines to our residents and caregivers.”

On the subject of how many residents and staff may opt not to take the vaccine, Gifford said he is confident the numbers will be high for those wanting to have the vaccine. “We believe that educating staff, residents, and family members about the importance of vaccines and the COVID vaccine itself will be critical,” he added.

Parkinson noted that the trauma that has been experienced inside facilities by residents and staff as so many deaths have occurred over a short period makes him confident as well that vaccine uptake will not be a problem.