Watching over Nursing Homes once again – time for mandated Boosters

Published on December 20, 2021 in RINewsToday

Colder weather is keeping people more indoors now, and Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas gatherings are drawing people together in groups, small and large. Like other states across the country, Rhode Island is seeing a growing transmission of the COVID-19 Delta, and now Omicron variants. Some national sources say Rhode Island’s case rate is the highest.

According to WPRI’s COVID-19 tracking page, 73.7% of Rhode Island’s population, totaling 1,097,379 are fully vaccinated, 9.2 % are partially vaccinated, and 17 % have received no vaccination at all. “But some back-of-the-envelope math based on the state’s tally of daily doses shows nearly 251,000 people have received booster shots or third doses. And earlier this week, RI Gov. McKee publicly said the number is closer to 260,000 people,” says WPRI.

Taking a Snapshot of Vaccination Rates in Rhode Island’s Facilities

Just days ago, AARP Rhode Island called for increased boosters in the state’s nursing homes after releasing its new analysis of the latest data from AARP’s Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard.  The Dashboard revealed that only 54% of nursing home residents and 19% of staff in 79 Rhode Island nursing homes have received a COVID- 19 booster.

“With holiday gatherings on the horizon, these numbers are a cause for concern for state policy makers, as more than a year and a half into the pandemic, rates of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes are rising again nationally, along with increased community spread,” says AARP Rhode Island. While case rates declined slightly compared to the same time period last month, in AARP’s dashboard, looking week to week, the number of cases increased each week during the four weeks ending November 2, notes the state’s largest aging advocacy group serving more than 132,000 members aged 50 and older.

The Rhode Island-specific AARP Nursing Home Database says that resident cases grew from a rate of 0.64 per 100 residents in mid-October to 1.19 in mid-November. Staff cases decreased slightly from a rate of 0.96 to 0.82 during this same time period. Nursing home resident deaths from coronavirus rose slightly from a rate of 0.06 in mid-October to 0.11 in mid-November.

“COVID-19 continues to infiltrate America’s nursing homes with more than 1,500 new nursing home resident deaths nationally for the third consecutive month,” said AARP’s Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor. “Increasing vaccination rates—including boosters — among nursing home residents and staff is key to protecting our loved ones and getting the pandemic under control,” she says.

“AARP calls on nursing homes, state and federal authorities, and others to increase access to and receipt of COVID-19 boosters for both nursing home staff and residents,” Taylor added.

“As new variants emerge and vaccine immunity wanes, the low number of residents and staff who have received a booster creates an unacceptable level of risk since the disease spreads so easily in these environments,” says Tayler, urging Gov. Dan McKee “to prioritize the state’s most vulnerable population and take immediate action to addresses the relatively low percentage of nursing home residents and staff who have not received COVID-19 booster shots.”

According to AARP Rhode Island, while the percentage of residents and staff who have received boosters remain low, rates of those fully vaccinated—those who have received two COVID-19 shots—continue to slowly rise as of November 21. In Rhode Island, 99.10% of nursing home staff are fully vaccinated (the highest rate of any state in the nation) and 94.10% of nursing home residents.

The number of Rhode Island facilities reporting a shortage of nurses or aides rose sharply from 34.7% to 41.7% in the four weeks ending November 21, says the advocacy group. 

Rhode Island’s high vaccination rates can be tied to Rhode Island mandating all healthcare workers be vaccinated by Oct. 1, 2021, say John E. Gage, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association. When the 30 day-compliance period ended, those who were unvaccinated were banned from entering the state’s healthcare facilities, he says, noting that termination resulted from failure to follow a reasonable policy set forth by their employer in compliance with Health Department’s emergency order. 

Yet, in at least one large nursing home facility, RINewsToday has learned, staff who refused to be vaccinated were either moved to non-patient-facing positions, or already worked in those positions, and allowed to keep working. An administrator said they are still working on encouraging 100% vaccination. Residents also have the right to refuse vaccination, and masks are required for patients outside of their rooms.

Families visiting had been restricted to the lobby, and at one time received a test in the parking lot prior to being able to enter. Today they are still screened for temperature, and they must wear a mask and complete a health symptom questionnaire. After a federal regulation went into effect several weeks ago easing access for families to visit, the screening also eased up and now tests are not required.

Any patient who is positive for COVID is moved to a quarantine area until fully recovered, and regular testing for patients and staff continues.

Some nursing homes are allowing families to take their loved one’s home for a Christmas holiday and then return after being with outside family and friends.

Gage notes that Rhode Island is ranked at No. 11 of states at a booster rate among residents of 54.1% compared to a national average of 38.4%.  Staff are boosted at 19.1% (#16) compared to a national average of 15.0%.  “Remember, individuals are not eligible for a booster until six months after their second dose of the vaccine series.  This will preclude some residents and staff, he says, stressing more credit should be given to the state’s health care facilities having the highest vaccine rates among staff and the second highest vaccination rate among residents.

According to Gage, the data released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Nov. 28, 2021 showed 99.38% of all workers in Rhode Island facilities are vaccinated – the highest (#1) vaccination rate for nursing homes in the country. Residents in Rhode Island nursing homes are 95.02% vaccinated – the second highest rate in the country.

To Booster or Not Booster, that is the Question

“With vaccines mandated in healthcare facilities and proof of vaccination being required to enter public places under the new Executive Order, it seems this would be a reasonable requirement for visitors to nursing homes,” says Gage, noting that this is not allowed according to the most recent guidance issued by the Centers for Med Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

As to mandating booster shots for nursing facility staff, however, Gage warns, “staffing is at a crisis level already. We cannot afford to lose more staff with another mandate,” he says.

“The first rounds of vaccines were given most commonly by third-party sources such as CVS medical staff who came into the homes, similar as they do every year for flu shots”, said one nursing home administrator to RINewsToday – “For the boosters, we did them using our own staff, and ordering our supply from the RI Department of Health.”  Boosters were advised to be given 4-5 months from original vaccination completion – yet in the nursing homes most didn’t get them until 8 to 9 months – as late as the end of October.

However, Joseph Wendelken, Rhode Island’s Department of Health’s Public Information Officer, says that CVS and Walgreens are working to make COVID-19 vaccine booster doses available to all nursing facilities,. “If any facility is looking for additional support getting residents and workers vaccinated, we can provide that support,” he says.

Wendelken notes that there is a requirement for nursing home workers to complete a primary COVID-19 vaccine series, but there is no [federal or state] requirement for booster doses. “The data are becoming clearer and clearer that – especially with the Omicron variant – booster doses are absolutely critical,” says Wendelken.

“Residents [of nursing homes and assisted living facilities] were among the first to get vaccinated so that means their immunity has waned and boosters are needed to avert significant outbreaks and deaths,” says  Maureen Maigret, former director of the R.I. Department of Elderly Affairs and chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council. “It is critical that booster shots are offered to all nursing home and assisted living residents especially now that visitation has opened up and visitors do not have to show proof of vaccination,” she says.

As of December 15th, the RI Department of Health Department shows at least 114 new cases in nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the past seven days, says Maigret. “We must  remember that over 1,700 residents died as a result of COVID in these facilities and providing booster shots is our best defense against more fatalities for this vulnerable population.”  

Even though it is not a federal policy, a growing number of state officials across the country are calling for the definition for being fully vaccinated to now include the booster shot. With Rhode Island seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases and an increase in hospitalizations due to Delta and Omicron variants spreading throughout the state, many (including this writer) express it’s time for Governor Dan McKee to now mandate booster shots for nursing facility staff.  More important, it must become a priority for the Rhode Island Health Department to make sure that every consenting nursing facility resident receives a booster, too.

President Biden is set to address the country on Tuesday, at a time to be announced. There is speculation whether the term “fully vaccinated” will now include not just the two original vaccinations but the booster as well.

The AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard analyzes federally reported data in four-week periods going back to June 1, 2020. Using this data, the AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the dashboard to provide snapshots of the virus’ infiltration into nursing homes and impact on nursing home residents and staff, with the goal of identifying specific areas of concern at the national and state levels in a timely manner.

The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available at  www.aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard. For more information on how coronavirus is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes. Medicare.gov’s Care Compare website now offers information about vaccination rates within nursing homes and how they compare to state and national averages.

RI Nursing Homes with new cases (more than 5) in the past 14 days:

Berkshire Place, Providence – 10 to 15

Jeanne Juga Residence, Pawtucket – 5 to 9

Oak Hill Health Center, Pawtucket – 20 to 24

Pawtucket Falls Healthcare, Pawtucket – 10 to 14

Summit Commons, Providence – 5 to 9

West View Nursing, West Warwick – 10 to 14

The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available at  www.aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard. For more information on how coronavirus is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes. Medicare.gov’s Care Compare website now offers information about vaccination rates within nursing homes and how they compare to state and national averages.

Bill Protects Nursing Home Residents, Providers

Published in the Pawtucket Times on June 1, 2020

This month, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) throw a bill in the legislative hopper to slow the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in nursing homes. It’s a common-sense legislative proposal and needed.

A recently released Kaiser Family Foundation study reported, “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on people who reside or work in long-term care facilities, including the 1.3 million individuals in nursing homes; 800,000 in assisted living facilities; 75,000 in intermediate care facilities; and 3 million people who work in skilled nursing or residential care facilities.”

Combatting COVID-19 in Congregate Settings

With COVID-19 quickly spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, Casey and Whitehouse’s legislative proposal, S. 3768, The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act, seeks to provide needed resources to facilities to protect frail residents and staff. Residents in these facilities are among the most vulnerable because of their age and underlying medical conditions. According to an analysis conducted by Gregg Girvan for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, as of May 22, in the 39 states that currently report such figures, 43 percent of all COVID-19 deaths have taken place in nursing homes and assisted living facilities

As more than 20,000 nursing homes residents and workers have died due to COVID-19, according to the latest reports, on May 19, 2020, Casey and Whitehouse introduced S.3768 to help states, nursing homes and intermediate care facilities put the brakes on the spreading of the deadly COVID-19. The legislative proposal, with 14 Democratic cosponsors (including Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed}, would help states implement strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings, including through the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and to support nursing home workers with premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits.

S. 3768 was referred to Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. As of March 30, 2020, a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate or this measure has not been received.

Days after the introduction of 25-page Senate legislative proposal, a House version (H.R. 6972) was introduced by Rep. Ana G. Eshoo (D-CA), cosponsored by Reps. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-IL), Donna E. Shalala (D-FL), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Seth Moulton (D-MA) and David N. Cicilline (D-RI). The House bill was referred to House Energy and Commerce

“This virus spares no state, no county, no facility. The unprecedented crisis unfolding in our Nation’s nursing homes demands an immediate, extraordinary response. Reports indicate nursing home residents and workers account for roughly 1 in 4 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States,” said Casey, who serves as Ranking Member of the U.S Senate Special Committee on Aging, in a statement announcing the bill’s introduction. “The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act would provide $20 billion in emergency funding [for staffing, testing, Personal Protective Equipment, etc.] to devise a sorely needed national, coordinated response to stem the spread of this terrible virus in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities,” notes Casey.

According to Casey, the Senate bill would also require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop guidance on cohorting best practices, including on how to safeguard resident rights. It would also instruct HHS to collect and publish data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, and finally fund surge teams of nurses, aides, and other critical staff to fill in at facilities where multiple residents and staff members have been infected.

“COVID-19 poses an immediate threat to the more than 1.3 million Americans, including more than 7,000 Rhode Islanders, who live in nursing homes,” says Whitehouse, noting that frontline staff across the nation are “doing heroic work under very challenging circumstances.”

“We need to get vastly more personal protective equipment and tests to nursing homes, which care for the patients who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Our legislation would also help states fund surge teams, sending additional staff reinforcements to facilities where they are needed to care for patients and prevent infection,” adds Whitehouse.

Before S. 3768 was officially introduced, in early March, Washington, DC-based AARP announced its support for the Senate proposal. “AARP supports the draft of the Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act that would help protect the health and save the lives of people in nursing homes and other facilities by supporting testing, personal protective equipment, staffing and more,” said Megan O’Reilly, Vice President of Government Affairs for AARP. “The proposal would also improve public transparency and help protect the rights of residents and their families, adds O’Reilly, calling on Congress “to act immediately to stem the loss of life and slow the spread of the virus.”

In the House Chamber, Rhode Island’s Cicilline, a member of the House Democratic Leadership as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, has also pushed for Congressional funding to stop the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes. The fifth term Congressman has called for additional funding for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund in the next package for congregate care facilities, including nursing homes. He also signed a letter to HHS Secretary Azar and Administrator Verma, of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), urging that HHS and the CMS to ensure that a significant portion of the newly allocated $25 billion for testing in the recently passed CARES Act be utilized for testing in nursing homes and other congregate living facilities.

State-wide Efforts to Combat COVID-19 in Nursing Homes

With Governor Gina Raimondo declaring a state of emergency on March 9, 2020, with the COVID-19 arriving in Rhode Island, the deadly pandemic virus spread quickly throughout the state’s nursing homes. At press time, it has been reported that 75 percent of all related COVID-19 deaths are in nursing homes.

According to Joseph Wendelken, Public Information’s Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), the state moved quickly to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the community and in nursing homes. He stated: “We curtailed and then prohibited visiting early on, and we have been doing extensive testing in every assisted living facility in the state. We are doing cyclical testing, meaning that we are continually testing all residents in all homes on a rotating basis. We are giving tailored infection control guidance to specific homes, and we are helping them procure additional PPE.”

Adds Wendelken, RIDOH has established two COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Homes [at Oak Hill Center in Pawtucket and Oakland Grove Health Care Center in Woonsocket] to be a COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Home. “These are centralized facilities to accept patients who are being discharged from the hospital and who are COVID-19 positive but no longer require acute-level care. This strategy allows COVID-19 positive patients leaving the hospital to receive specialized rehabilitation and step-down, post-acute care while reserving hospital beds for patients who need acute-level care,” he said.

On Smith Hill, the Rhode Island House Republican Caucus has recently called for members of the House Committee on Oversight to meet to address the increasing COVID-19 death rate in the state’s nursing and assisted living facilities.

Putting Politics Aside…

With less than 156 days until the upcoming 2020 Presidential election, will S. 3768 reach the Senate floor for a vote. Since the beginning of 2019, more than 350 House-passed bills—including hundreds that have bipartisan support—have been buried by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) in his legislative graveyard. With no Republican Senators supporting Casey and Whitehouse’s COVID-19 bill, will it even reach the Senate floor for a vote?

It’s time for McConnell, who has called himself the “grim reaper” of Democratic legislation, to lay down his deadly scythe, making the safety of millions of residents who reside in the nation’s 15,583 skilled nursing facilities a legislative priority. The GOP Senator from Kentucky, who is in a close Senate race with Democratic opponent Amy McGrath, might consider putting politics aside during a raging COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the nation to work with Senate Democrats to protect frail residents and nursing home staff. Kentucky voters might view protecting residents against COVID a bipartisan issue.

Nursing Home Care in the Spotlight

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 4, 2019

Following on the heels of its March 6 hearing, “Not Forgotten: Protecting Americans from Abuse and Neglect in Nursing Homes,” the Senate Finance Committee held its second nursing home hearing this year, “Promoting Elder Justice: A Call for Reform,” on July 23, in 215 Dirksen, to study proposed reforms to reduce neglect and abuse in the nation’s nursing homes and to put a spotlight on the need to reauthorize key provisions of the Elder Justice Act.

During the two hour and twenty-minute morning hearing, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) along 11 members of the Senate committee listened to the testimony of five panel witnesses.

In his opening statement, Grassley acknowledged that the work isn’t done yet to improving the care in the nation’s nursing homes and Congress must protect nursing home and assisted living residents and those in group living arrangements from harm. The Iowa Senator noted in the recently released U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report the federal agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress, noted that while one-third of nursing home residents may experience harm while under the care of these facilities, in more than half of these cases, the harm was preventable.

Calls for Bipartisan Efforts to Improve Nursing Home Care

Grassley called on Congress to reauthorize programs, such as the Elder Justice Act, to put the brakes on the growing trend of elder an abuse fueled by social media.

Adds, Wyden, in his opening statement, there is now an opportunity for Congress to come together to hammer out bipartisan legislative reforms to fix the nation’s nursing home oversight efforts. He urged his fellow Senate committee members to work to reduce the instances of physical, sexual, mental and emotion abuse in nursing homes, that appears to be increasing. He also called for a redo to the federal nursing home rating system because it does not reflect the increased prevalence of abuse.

During the first panel, Megan H. Tucker, Senior Advisor for Legal Review, of the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), stated that abuse and neglect oftentimes are not properly identified, reported or even addressed. While most providers are delivering good care, Tucker warned that Health and Human Service safeguards are lacking.

Tucker testified that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should use data more effectively and close the gaps in their reporting process to ensure that abuse and neglect are identified and the deficiencies corrected.

Concluding the first panel, John E. Dicken, Director, Health Care, of the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), discussed a newly released GAO report, released at the hearing, that detailed a growing trend of abuse and neglect of residents. According to one GAO report findings, abuse deficiencies more than doubled between 2013 (430) and 2017 (875), with the greatest increase in actual harm and immediate jeopardy deficiencies, and that abuse is still under-reported, he said. The GAO report also expressed concern over “significant gaps” with CMS’s oversight.

Leading the second panel, Robert Blancato, Coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, called on Congress to reauthorize, the Elder Justice Act. With elder abuse becoming a “national emergency,” he urged lawmakers to dedicate funding for Adult Protective Services at the local and state levels. Blancato also stressed the importance of strengthening the long-term care ombudsman program, continuing the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, authorizing an Advisory Board on Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation, and finally funding for elder abuse forensic centers.

President and CEO, Mark Parkinson, of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association (AHCA), representing nearly 10,000 of the 15,000 plus nursing homes in the country who provide care to nearly four million individuals each year, stated he was not at the hearing to defend poor care but to provide solutions to Congress to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Fixing the Problem

Parkinson testified that over the past seven years, facilities participating in AHCA’s quality initiative, have shown improvement in 18 of 24 quality measures. Specifically, there are less hospital readmissions, fewer antipsychotic medications being prescribed, staff are spending more time than ever before with residents and today’s nursing homes are more person-centered care today than ever before.

Parkinson called on lawmakers to improve employee background check systems, add patient satisfaction data to CMS’s nursing home rating system, address the severe staffing shortage and to adequate fund Medicaid.

Finally, Lori Smetanka, Executive Director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, ended the second panel discussions, by warning that more must be done to protect nursing home residents from abuse.

Smetanka urged Congress to take steps to enforce minimum requirements for sufficient staffing, establish standards and oversight for nursing home ownership and operations, prevent rollback of nursing home regulatory standards, increase the transparency of information and to strengthen and adequately fund elder justice provisions.

Now, with the Congress putting poor nursing home care on its policy radar screen, both Democratic and Republic congressional leadership must work closely together to come up with bipartisan solutions. Fix this problem once and for all.

Senate Finance Committee members — Senators Lankford, Stabenow, Daines, Menendez, Carper, Cardin, Warner, Casey, Brown, Cortez Masto, and Hassan – attended the July 23 hearing

To listen to this Senate Finance Committee hearing, go to http://www.c-span.org/video/?462733-1/finance.

For a copy of the GAO report, http://www.gao.gov/assets/710/700418.pdf.