Nursing homes grapple with low recall rates and staffing issues as omicron spreads

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As the omicron variant causes an increase in coronavirus cases, many long-term care facilities face challenges not seen for months, officials across the country told ABC News.

Many nursing homes are grappling with low recall rates and a growing workforce crisis, industry executives and healthcare advocates have said.

“Retirement homes are on high alert right now,” said Terry Fulmer, chairman of the John A. Hartford Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to improve care for the elderly. “Omicron is highly transmissible and is spreading through communities like wildfire.”

In the week ending Jan. 2, nursing homes and long-term care facilities reported nearly 15,000 cases across the country, three times the infection rate compared to there barely a month ago, when facilities reported fewer than 5,000 cases, data released by the Centers for Disease Shows Control and Prevention.

Cases among staff members have grown at an even greater rate, with facilities reporting more than 34,000 cases in the week ending Jan. 2, up from just over 5,600 a month ago.

In Sussex County, New Jersey, the National Guard was deployed last week to help nursing home staff set up infection control protocols and other tasks as multiple facilities saw COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Staff at these facilities have been particularly affected by the latest variant of COVID,” County Commissioner Anthony Fasano said in a statement. “We thought it was safe to give them the help they needed before there was a crisis.”

In California, after more than 5,000 new cases were reported at skilled nursing facilities, state public health official Tomas Aragon announced that recalls will be mandatory for healthcare work and that visitors will need to undergo additional testing.

According to CDC data, the recent spread of the virus among residents of long-term care homes is mostly occurring among unvaccinated and twice-vaccinated residents, while the infection rate remains low for residents who have received a reminder.

For most adults, two doses of the currently licensed COVID-19 vaccines significantly reduce the risk of being hospitalized or dying from the virus. But older people, whose immune defenses decline with age, may still be at a higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, especially if it has been more than five months since their last injection.

As of Jan. 2, more than 87 percent of nursing home residents nationwide had received two injections, and nearly 62 percent had been boosted, according to CDC data.

For industry advocates, increasing the number of residents and employees receiving recalls is a priority.

“We have urged long-term care providers to prepare and stay ahead of the wave by stepping up their recall efforts,” said Cristina Crawford, spokesperson for the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living.

Hartford told ABC News she was particularly concerned that the rate of callbacks among staff was lagging behind.

“We need to redouble our efforts to put boosters in the arms of residents and staff,” she said.

In Ohio, where about 40% of nursing home staff are unvaccinated and the 21-day average case is over 14,000, omicron has “exacerbated” the growing staff crisis, said Pete Van Runkle, executive director of the Ohio Health Care Association.

“The cases in long-term care in Ohio are about four times more numerous with the omicron than at the height of the Delta,” Runkle told ABC News.

“The biggest problem with the incredibly high transmissibility is that the staff are running out of time to work,” he said.

The good news, Runkle said, is that despite the growing number of cases, nursing homes are reporting “very few” COVID-related deaths compared to last winter’s outbreak.

Nationwide, death rates among residents and long-term care staff have remained stable throughout the spread of omicron. Nationally, facilities reported 405 deaths among residents in the week ending Jan. 2, up from 485 deaths in the week ending Dec. 5, according to data released by the CDC.

Pennsylvania State Healthcare Association CEO Zach Shamberg said the good numbers are the result of a multi-pronged approach.

“That’s a total of 180 from what we saw last year and it’s an honor for providers and frontline workers who are doing all they can to mitigate the spread of the virus now that they better understand the virus, have PPE and testing, and most importantly, access to a vaccine and boosters that help provide an added level of protection to residents and workers, ”Shamberg said.

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