James M. Berklan

It’s the phrase that keeps giving. And giving.

If you somehow haven’t seen one of the best columns you’ll read this year, you must check out this recent letter from colleague John O’Connor. Colorful and to the point, his piece takes a few hundred words to say what others don’t come close to with three or four times that amount.

It was just a few weeks ago when he deftly gave us multiple layers of education about being judged by the company we keep.

I’d like to offer another.

It starts with an AARP report Thursday that nursing home residents died at a record pace in the period surrounding New Year’s Day. Almost 20,000 over four weeks ending Jan. 17 — for the second straight month.

A few more corpses and soon we might be talking about some real carnage. (That’s sarcasm, folks. The late, well-respected Sen. Everett Dirksen has been famously credited as saying this about out-of-control federal spending: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”)

The high COVID-19 infection and death rates of nursing home personnel have long been correlated to prevalences in the surrounding community. Take my word, it was not nursing home residents traveling, jamming venues and holding vast Christmas and New Year’s gatherings that led to 1 out of every 53 of them dying (drawing on AARP citations).

No, it was facilities’ neighbors, near and sometimes far, who by ignorance — sometimes willful, sometimes not — who spread waves of debilitating germs to care facility residents.

Once again, we get judged by the company we keep.

A catalyst, not a solution

Now with vaccinations taking hold, and infection and death rates gloriously tumbling in many skilled nursing settings, it is no time to forget that key phrase. For even though COVID vaccines appear to be having a very positive effect on the overall spread of the deadly coronavirus, they do not erase all dangers. With a 95% efficacy rate for minimizing the worst COVID-19 effects, that still means 1 in every 20 will not be spared.

In pre-pandemic times, seeing 1 of every 20 patients suffer at the hands of a single disease never would have been tolerated. And so it should be again as we emerge from this darkest period in the nation’s healthcare history.

Every single extra person who can be vaccinated will be a bonus. If the first three rounds sponsored by the federal government don’t achieve vaccination rates north of at least 80%, it’s time to keep pushing, as Marquis Companies has so successfully exhibited via frequent, effective staff messaging. 

Facilities will indeed be judged by the company they keep. That includes family members and other visitors. Thankfully, they are starting to be pushed as one of the next desirable groups to be inoculated.

Vaccination percentages should eventually nudge higher as wary employees notice that their shot-taking colleagues weren’t injured and didn’t die by allowing the quickly developed elixirs into enter their bodies. Women concerned about potential child-bearing effects may come to the conclusion that vaccinated friends are enjoying healthy, typical family lives. It will still be up to each individual.

But an alternative to constant face-mask wearing will likely become more desirable to most. And those staff who don’t get vaccinated should be required to wear masks continually while on the job, just as they should during any flu season when they are not vaccinated, or have a medically exempt reason not to. “You want to drive our village’s roads?” our town’s mayor once responded to a skeptic. “Then get used to observing the stop signs and speed limits we deem necessary to keep our population safe.” The consequences of non-compliance didn’t have to be spelled out, and he didn’t offer stop sign-optional driving for those who balked.

We’re all judged by the company we keep, as O’Connor so ably reminded several weeks ago. I’ll add that if you don’t like what you see and haven’t done anything to compel change for the better, there’s another judgment that can be made.

Follow Executive Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.