Many nursing home employees remain unvaccinated as delta variant puts residents at risk

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GERMANTOWN, Tenn. (WREG) — As the delta variant runs rampant, driving up infections and hospitalizations across the mid-South, there’s new data showing the virus is once again attacking some of the most vulnerable in our community.

A News Channel 3 Investigation reveals it’s because some of the workers caring for seniors refuse to get vaccinated.

On a Friday afternoon in July at the Village at Germantown, independent living residents sat in the dining hall, some of them enjoying lunch with family. There was also a group gathered in the theater.

CEO Mike Craft says life is finally getting back to normal.

“Dining together again, we have big events and parties; if employees are vaccinated they don’t have to wear a mask,” Craft said. 

Nor do residents in independent living. Craft says, thankfully, some restrictions have been lifted in their nursing home too.

“I think the vaccine is largely responsible for us being able to get back like we are,” he said. “We got our first vaccine doses here in January and within a couple of months, most people had been fully vaccinated.”

According to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, by mid-July, 87% of the nursing home residents at the Village at Germantown were vaccinated, as well as 89% of health care workers.

That was one of the highest employee vaccination rates in Tennessee, and the highest among skilled nursing facilities in the Memphis area, for the week ending July 4.

“We had a lot of awareness campaigns leading up to the vaccine being available. Anytime I was able to get in front of our employees or the residents, I would promote it, talk about it’s coming,” said Craft.

However, a review of federal data reveals hundreds of other nursing homes across the mid-South have a much longer way to go in fully protecting its residents from COVID-19.

Because, while many of the seniors living in nursing homes have gotten vaccinated, the workers caring for them have not.

“You would think that people working in health care would have a greater sense of awareness and a greater sense of responsibility,” Craft said.

In May, CMS issued new regulations that require long-term care facilities to submit resident and staff vaccination data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CMS began posting the data to its website in June. According to CMS, there is about a two-week lag in between when the vaccination data is reported on the CDC’s database and when it appears on the CMS Nursing Home Data website.

The News Channel 3 Investigators reviewed several weeks of vaccination data for hundreds of nursing homes in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. For this report, we focused on data submitted by skilled nursing facilities for the week ending July 4.

It reveals vaccinations for residents in mid-South nursing homes, far outpace that of health care workers, posing a risk of reinfection for those that have been vaccinated. It’s a danger that’s lead to at least one death at a mid-South skilled nursing facility.

Less than a fourth of Arkansas nursing homes had staff vaccination rates of 75% or higher, compared to almost three quarters with 75% resident vaccination rates.
More than half of Mississippi’s nursing homes had resident vaccination rates of 75% or higher by July 4th. Only 15 had staff vaccination rates that high.

Out of more than 300 nursing homes across Tennessee, only 13 had staff vaccination rates of 75% or higher by July 4. In Shelby County, only three of the county’s 27 facilities met that mark. 

Whitehaven Community Living Center had the lowest percentage of fully, vaccinated health care workers at just 24%. The facility reported only 19 of 78 health care employees eligible to work that week had a completed vaccination.

At Quince Nursing and Rehabilitation, where COVID killed 35 residents, which was the deadliest outbreak among long-term care facilities in the county, just 28% of health care workers are vaccinated.

(*Note: Quince reported 35 deaths to the Shelby County Health Department which began tracking clusters early in the pandemic, and prior to the requirement for skilled nursing facilities to submit weekly data to CMS. Federal data currently shows 34 deaths.)

The Highlands of Memphis Health and Rehab wasn’t far behind at close to 30%.

Dr. Stephen Threlkeld of Baptist Memphis says unvaccinated workers threaten to reverse all the progress made at nursing homes once ravaged by the pandemic.

“The situation is not perfect, it can be damaged by people introducing the virus, and now we have the more contagious virus for that to increasingly, potentially be a factor. So it’s very important, I think, not just for the people who work at nursing homes to protect the folks that they’re serving, the patients, but they need to protect themselves,” said Dr. Threlkeld.

Nursing homes must also submit data showing how many current residents and health care workers declined a COVID-19 vaccine.

At Graceland Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, where according to the Shelby County Health Department, a new outbreak began on July 13, 111 out of 188 health care workers declined the vaccine for the week ending July 4.

In Mississippi, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, a vaccinated resident died and two others were hospitalized after an outbreak of breakthrough cases at two nursing homes, one in Hattiesburg, the other nearby.

State health officials told WREG it was an unvaccinated worker who brought the virus into the facility.

“They are the population that might tend to have the least intense protection from a vaccine, some of them have other medical problems, and just by virtue of age and immune senescence, they might have a less long-lasting response to a vaccine,” Thelkeld said of nursing home residents,

At the Village at Germantown, Craft says workers and residents know, if new cases arise, the privileges residents are now enjoying could again disappear.

“My hopes are that conditions continue to improve, that we have no other infections here and we can ultimately restore ourselves to totally normal,” Craft said.

Threlkeld said the reasons for vaccine hesitancy among health care workers is similar to the general public. Some don’t trust the science or the vaccine, while others are simply afraid.

Several medical organizations are pushing for required vaccinations for health care workers. WREG spoke with a nursing home administrator in Mississippi who said he’d love that, but if facilities begin mandating vaccines, they run the risk of losing workers.

Interactive Map of MidSouth Nursing Home Vaccination Rates

How did area mid-South nursing homes compare?

On Aug. 5, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 140 ongoing outbreaks in long-term care facilities across the state.

The Shelby County Health Department currently reports ongoing outbreaks at the following facilities:

  • Cordova Wellness Center/Grace Healthcare
  • Graceland Rehabilitation and Nursing Center
  • Kirby Pines Nursing Home
  • Memphis Jewish Home
  • Brookdale Dogwood Creek

Four of the five facilities have had multiple outbreaks since the start of the pandemic. The outbreaks at Graceland, Kirby Pines, Memphis Jewish Home and Brookdale Dogwood began after July 4.

It’s important to note vaccination data fluctuates just as the number of residents and staff working in skilled nursing facilities. The data available on the CMS Nursing Home Data website typically updates on Thursday of each week.

Vaccination data

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