December 2020 occupancy rates for nursing homes fell to 71.7 percent, the lowest level since data have been collected, according to the latest NIC MAP® Data Service (NIC MAP) report, provided by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC).

Occupancy declined 13.3 percentage points since February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

NIC experts acknowledge that skilled nursing occupancy has been hit hard by COVID-19. However, the latest numbers do not account for recent efforts to vaccinate skilled nursing patients and frontline health care workers, who are at greater risk than the general population of contracting the virus.

“New COVID-19 cases and mortalities are dropping steadily due to the vaccine’s reach and effectiveness in skilled nursing settings,” said Beth Burnham Mace, NIC’s chief economist. “As vaccination rates rise, occupancy rates are likely to increase in the coming months.”

According to NIC’s Skilled Nursing COVID-19 Tracker, from Dec. 20, 2020, to Feb. 14, 2021, new weekly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in skilled nursing facilities fell 89 percent, while new cases nationwide declined 59 percent over the same period.

These numbers are nearly identical to the latest data on COVID cases announced by the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL), which show that nursing homes have seen an 82 percent decline in new cases among residents since the peak during the week of Dec. 20, 2020, when there were more than 30,000 new resident cases.

In the same period, community cases in the general population dropped by 46 percent, showcasing that vaccines are having an impact in protecting the elderly population in nursing homes, AHCA/NCAL said.

Even with vaccinations beginning to bring the crisis in skilled nursing facilities to an end, NIC said it is uncertain if all facilities will be able to sustain their financial well-being without help.

“Federal government support was essential last year for many skilled nursing facilities to continue to serve patients,” said Bill Kauffman, senior principal at NIC. “Whether all skilled nursing facilities can remain financially sustainable going forward will depend in part on additional governmental support as part of COVID relief and how quickly the bounce back in occupancy will occur.”

Click here to access the latest skilled nursing data.