The Banner Bulletin: U.S. nursing homes currently safest place for vulnerable seniors

Yes, according to an analysis by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) of data produced by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), the chief regulator of our nation’s nursing homes, COVID case counts within skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) are down 98% since December 20 of last year and by mid-May 2021 account for about 0.3% of our country’s cases.

That is beyond encouraging news for seniors requiring skilled nursing care and their family members, long term care providers and their loved ones and communities across the nation. The federal government data in alignment with statistics from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) point to the vaccination rollout and those who have been inoculated as the initial knockout punch to the raging spread of COVID – though as any boxer knows, a knockout is typically not a fatal blow. Most of us understand the virus is here to stay in one mutation or another and that new variants are making their way back into our lives at an alarming pace.

Given these statistics, it is important that communities, elected officials and media view this progress through a pragmatic lens. If we think back to the height of the pandemic – when direct care providers went to work every day with fear of being infected, when asymptomatic individuals were not yet pegged as the majority of people who actually contract and unknowingly spread the virus, and critical supplies for health care workers were in dire shortage, there was no time for optimism. We now know with accurate scientific information, access to resources and availability of vaccines, we were able to save lives and we did.

While that last sentence may sound simple, living through it wasn’t.

The outbreak of the pandemic in a Seattle nursing home triggered a cascade of scrutiny on the quality and safety measures implemented in skilled nursing care. Even though it is common knowledge as we age our immune systems weaken and we are more susceptible to infection of any kind, nursing homes were viewed with suspicion as if the virus started within the four walls rather than came through the front door.

We struggled to prevent, contain and treat amidst a frenzied environment and too much of the unknown.

Then another data point reported during that time drew a correlation between nursing home outbreaks and rising COVID cases in the outer community – a reality that suggested a more complicated dynamic than long term care providers not doing their job well enough.

A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis in 2020 noted “Long-term care cases in “hotspot states” with wider community transmission have risen at four times the rate as long-term care cases in nonhotspot states” and “The two states with the highest overall increase in cases statewide, Texas and Florida, also report the highest increase in cases in long-term care facilities, with both states reporting an increase of approximately 50% in long-term care cases between June 24th and July 9th and nearly a doubling of cases during this time period.” Additionally, the report explained, “Increased cases in long-term care facilities may be attributed in part to increased testing of long-term care residents, but it likely represents a real increase in infections connected to the near doubling of all cases across the state in this 14-day period. The share of tests coming back positive in Texas and Florida are well over 10%, suggesting that community transmission is widespread and increasing.”

The vaccination, however, was the game changer for separating community infection characteristics to area nursing homes. NIC’s more recent data on the impact of vaccination rates bears noting, “In the Midwest, over three months into the U.S. vaccination program, Michigan reported the highest statewide general population increase in COVID-19 cases, jumping 612% from February 21 to April 11, reaching highs not seen since vaccines first became available. The state’s case count among residents in SNFs, however, declined 25% over the same period. Meanwhile, cases among staff increased 281%. Between the weeks ending March 21 and April 11, COVID-19 vaccines prevented at least 2,000 new infections among SNFs residents in Michigan.”

The saying “the devil is in the details” is often true but sometimes there isn’t a devil – sometimes things happen that are very bad and can’t necessarily be explained and don’t have a singular villain at the helm directing havoc. Now that we are beginning a second wave of variant infections, we are armed with far more information, nearly a year and a half of experience and effective vaccines. Long term care providers intend on maintaining that statistic of the safest place for vulnerable seniors to receive health care.

What is important moving forward, is that the next time we are faced with a devastating unknown, perhaps we let faith triumph over judgment and hope triumph over fear.

That is what those who care for the elderly did and as statistics bear, they were successful.

Mark McKenzie is founder and president of Focused Post Acute Care Partners that operates a community in Brenham and 30 other long term care communities in east and west Texas and along the Gulf.


Read this article on The Banner Bulletin