Kimberly Marselas

Numbers don’t lie.

You can ignore them, maybe manipulate them or even question their accuracy.

But denial won’t shake their existence.

The numbers we’ve seen over the last two weeks tell the shameful story of this nation’s failure to contain COVID-19. They are proof of the very real threat that both vulnerable seniors and the skilled nursing sector must face day in, day out.

The latest round of COVID accounting started just after New Year. That’s when more than one million Americans tested positive for the virus. That incredible number bested (?) U.S. and global records set early in the pandemic. Back then, we had little idea how this novel coronavirus spread or how to avoid it. 

But as we’ve watched all kinds of numbers tick higher during this wave of the pandemic, it’s one seemingly small one that struck a nerve for me. The CDC reported last week that COVID-19 deaths among nursing home staff were threatening all-time highs recorded in 2020, months before vaccines were available in the U.S.

There were 67 for the week ending Jan. 9.

Sixty-seven people who cared enough to serve nursing home residents, but for whom some mix of policy, scientific advances and personal responsibility failed to provide enough protection. When viewed as 67 souls lost, that’s no small number at all.

For that reason and others, 5-4 is my favorite set of numbers in this young year. That was the narrow margin by which the Supreme Court voted Jan. 13 to allow a federal vaccine mandate for healthcare workers to proceed.

As government attorneys argued before the Court, the idea is that the mandate will lessen the risk to all patients (including nursing home residents) but also limit staff-to-staff exposures. That could ameliorate a stat that makes your workdays incredibly tough in these days of omicron: the number of workers out sick or in quarantine at any one time. 

There are changing numbers of days to stay home when sick, daunting community positivity rates, case counts to track and vaccinations to report. I get that after nearly two years, all these numbers blur together to feel somehow distant or maybe even useless. 

They spike, they recede. They instill fear, they offer glimmers of hope. Put simply, they are toying with our emotions.

But these numbers — vaccination rates, hospital ICU beds filled, resident and worker booster shot coverage — are the best guidelines we have for understanding when certain activities are safe. For us and healthcare patients.

Turning a blind eye when those figures get maddening will not ease COVID’s grip on all of us. The only way to move forward is to stay aware and to be wary. Make individual and organizational choices that help control the numbers. Encourage others to do the same.

Trust that we’ll continue watching the data for you. But also know none of us wants to write a story about weekly nursing home worker deaths hitting a record of 70.

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor for McKnight’s Long-Term Care News. 

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.