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US nursing homes hit by virus, staff quitting

By AI HEPING in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-01-24 10:13

US nursing homes are experiencing record high infections among residents and staff hit by the Omicron variant, and long-term facilities across the country are reporting major staff shortages as workers are sickened or quit their jobs.

More than 40,000 residents at the homes tested positive last week, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost a tenfold rise since November.

Last week, there were 988 reported deaths among nursing home residents, but only a fraction of the peak in deaths — more than 6,000 — in December 2020. Staff shortages due to infection and workers quitting have nursing homes most concerned.

Governors in Minnesota, New Jersey and New York have called up National Guard troops to bolster staffing. On Friday, New York Governor Kathy Hochul said the state will deploy 88 non-medically trained Guard members.

Infection cases for staff hit a record high of more than 67,000 in the first week of January but started to decline last week.

In Virginia, about 2,700 care workers have tested positive for the coronavirus this month, The Washington Post reported last week.

In neighboring Maryland, 7 in 10 nursing homes have reported new outbreaks, and as many as 5,000 workers have had to stay home after testing positive, Joseph DeMattos, the president of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, told the Post.

Both states have reissued states of emergency to ease the staffing shortages, including extending expiration dates for nursing licenses and allowing nursing graduates to start work more quickly.

"It's not only the cases that have skyrocketed, but also the staffing shortages that have really strained the systems," Dr Alice Kim with the Cleveland Clinic told News 5.

Pete Van Runkle with the Ohio Health Care Association told News 5 right now there are 4,000 long-term healthcare workers out due to COVID. That is on top of the staff members who quit.

Though vaccination of staff at nursing homes and long-term care facilities has caught up somewhat to that of residents — 84 percent of staff and 87 percent of residents — many staff members have not gotten boosters. Only 30 percent, have received boosters – less than half the number of residents who are boosted, according to the CDC.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont on Jan 10 signed an executive order requiring all employees of long-term care facilities to get a booster by Feb 11.

Infections among workers are happening as homes must meet a federal requirement by Thursday to have staff vaccination rates of at least 80 percent.

Facilities will be expected to have full workforce vaccinations by Feb 26, except for workers who qualify for medical or other exemptions.

The rule was issued by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The mandate doesn't apply to assisted-living facilities not regulated by CMS.

"We know that there is going to be a number of providers that are coming forward and saying they could potentially lose a significant number of staff as the CMS vaccine mandate takes effect," said Kari Thurlow, CEO at LeadingAge, which tracks legislation and regulations relating to nursing homes.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nursing home industry has lost more than 420,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic, reducing its workforce to the size it was 15 years ago.

Low-wage workers make up most staff in the nursing home industry. They are the lowest paid in the healthcare industry, earning a median annual wage of $30,120, according to federal data.

Some employees have chosen to retire early rather than face the intense workload and coronavirus risks. Others have been lured away by companies offering higher wages.

Many nursing homes are shutting down under the pressure, Katy Smith Sloan, president and CEO of Leading Age, a group representing non-profit providers of long-term care.

She told National Public Radio (NPR) that she heard two of her organization's members closed in the first week of January. "I think there were five (closures) the week before," she said. "And I think we're going to see more of that."

Some facilities are responding by closing wings and reducing the number of patients they accept. That halts hospitals' abilities to transition patients from the emergency room or intensive care unit to another care facility, holding up hospital beds.

"We're also starting to see more families start to pull patients out of nursing homes," Dr Lissy Hu, founder and CEO of Careport, told NPR. Careport connects patients in more than 1,000 hospitals to long-term care facilities.

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