COVID-19 cases, deaths are dropping in California nursing homes

After a devastating sweep that killed more than 9,000 residents and workers, COVID-19 has nearly disappeared from California’s nursing homes.

At the height of the winter surge, more than 80 residents of nursing facilities died every day from COVID-19. In March, however, fewer than 15 new cases were reported each day, and deaths dropped to between one and six people daily, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Health experts credit a massive nationwide campaign to vaccinate elderly and frail residents and their caregivers. About 87% of the 85,000 people who live in California’s skilled nursing facilities have been fully vaccinated, according to the state health agency.

“There is no question whatsoever that the vaccine has made a huge difference,” said Dr. Mike Wasserman, a geriatrician and past president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine. “When you have a nursing home that is fully vaccinated, the residents are protected, and we are seeing a dramatic decrease in cases and deaths.”

Deaths and infections also have declined in California’s more than 7,400 assisted living centers and other long-term care facilities. About 3,700 residents and staff there have died from COVID-19. Over the past week, there’s been 223 active COVID cases.

Nationwide, COVID-19 cases in skilled nursing and assisted living facilities have dropped 96% since December 20, according to a report released Tuesday by two long-term care industry groups.

For many long-term care residents, the pandemic’s ultimate toll remains grim, with higher rates of depression, incontinence and weight loss linked to long-term social isolation, according to a new study.

Now California’s nursing homes are cautiously reopening. At some homes, fully vaccinated residents now can dine together in small groups, receive visitors and meet for group activities.

Statewide, about 88% of workers in skilled nursing facilities have been fully vaccinated, according to state data. But that drops to only 65% of workers when other long-term care centers, such as assisted living homes, are included, according to federal data.

Wasserman said state officials need to ensure that new patients and staff have access to vaccines and any boosters after the end of the federal long-term care vaccination campaign this winter. Fortunately, pharmacies that serve long-term care facilities now can get vaccinations directly through the federal government, he said.

“I think we are taking a short moment to feel relieved. And then we’re starting to worry again,” Wasserman said. “We’re not worried about the next three months. We’re worried about what comes after. If we are not prepared, we could go through this again.”

CalMatters COVID-19 coverage, translation and distribution is supported by generous grants from the Blue Shield of California Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation and the California Health Care Foundation.

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