In March – well into the global pandemic and before most people had access to lifesaving vaccines – a celebration took place.
Byron Health Center, a long-term care facility on Beacon Street, announced it had gone a year without a documented case of COVID-19. It was an impressive accomplishment that highlights the importance of preventive measures such as health screenings, wearing personal protective equipment and quarantines to ensure the risk of transmission stays low.
“It was such a multifaceted approach to keeping everyone safe,” Deb Lambert, CEO of Byron Wellness Systems, said Wednesday.
The next, key step to ensuring the safety of the residents, staff and the public is getting people vaccinated – something doctors and public health experts have stressed for months. A looming mandate for nursing home workers to get the shots or cost their employers valuable federal funding aims to further protect high-risk populations hit hard by COVID-19, which so far has killed nearly 630,000 people in the U.S.
Almost 134,000 of those were nursing home residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Indiana, nursing home residents account for more than 6,300 – 45% – of the state's coronavirus death toll.
The mandate was announced last week, and specifics about when it might take effect are expected next month. There already is pushback, with industry groups arguing the requirement will push needed staff to other jobs without mandates.
“COVID-19 vaccination mandates for health care personnel should be applied to all health care settings,” Zach Cattell, president of the Indiana Health Care Association and Indiana Center for Assisted Living, told The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly. “Without an across-the-board mandate for all health care settings, the nursing facility-only action will exacerbate already-difficult workforce challenges.”
That's possible. But recent Food and Drug Administration approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could spur more businesses to implement mandates, creating fewer options for nursing home workers to consider.
The military, companies including pharmacy chain CVS, universities and hospitals announced plans to require vaccines soon after President Joe Biden's imposition of the federal mandate, which would penalize noncompliant facilities by withholding Medicare and Medicaid funding. Virtually all nursing homes in Indiana receive that funding, Kelly reported.
Vaccines work, and the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are of people who are unvaccinated.
Cases and deaths in long-term care facilities are far lower than peaks seen last year, when vaccines weren't available. Eighty-three percent of Indiana nursing home residents and 54% of staff are fully vaccinated, according to state data.
The numbers are better at Byron, where Lambert credits health care workers with steadfastly following precautions. About 96% of its residents and 56% of workers are fully vaccinated, compared with 81% of residents and 44% of nursing home staff in Allen County.
Byron saw no new COVID-19 cases among residents and fewer than five total positive tests among residents, as of late Wednesday afternoon. The state does not provide specifics if the number is less than five.
There were no new positive tests among staff, and 28 total.
“Truly, the team is how we got through this,” Lambert said.
We will get through this, with more vaccinations.