Bill Stone

The holidays are a time of year when many families want to gather together, and this year, it seems like it’s finally the perfect time to do so. After all, COVID-19 numbers were down this spring and summer, as are hospitalizations and deaths. 

Still, since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve known that we need to protect the most vulnerable members of society, and that should still be a priority. Even while many regions of the world have dropped COVID restrictions and many people see a light at the end of the tunnel, certain settings have populations that remain at high risk of complications, hospitalization and death from COVID. 

Long-term care facilities are one of those settings. In particular, the senior population in such facilities is more likely to develop severe symptoms, as well as long COVID. Coming down with long Covid means they can experience debilitating, life-altering symptoms for more than three months after initial infection. 

Let’s take a look at the risk COVID poses this holiday season and how long-term care facilities can protect seniors during this time. 

The risk is higher for seniors

Booster shots were approved first for seniors for a reason. The elderly are more likely to get COVID which can often lead to serious symptoms requiring hospitalization, and these cases are, in turn, more likely to lead to fatalities. Getting an updated booster is critical to the health and safety of seniors. Without a booster, the immune response is much like not being ever vaccinated. 

Another significant risk is the problem of long COVID. Nearly 80% of people who get long COVID struggle to perform normal daily activities for at least four to six weeks. They may have difficulty breathing, brain fog, extreme fatigue, or even more serious problems like heart issues. 

For a smaller but significant number, these symptoms can last many months, to years, to a lifetime. Long COVID is enough of a risk that the federal government has initiated trials for potential treatments. Until those treatments come, however, the risk is still great for the elderly. 

Not only that, but COVID case counts are on the rise once again, and experts worry about a surge this winter with new variants that may be even more contagious and deadly than the current ones. 

This is not the right time to drop precautions. Especially where the most vulnerable are concerned, you should always ensure health and safety through whatever measures possible. 

Prioritizing safety this season

The holidays are a natural time for families to get together, and there will inevitably be more visitors in long-term care facilities during this time. Unfortunately, that brings more risk of bringing COVID into the facility. 

First, you can start to protect your seniors by ensuring that they and your staff are all vaccinated and boosted. Those who are 65 and up and fully vaccinated can have up to a 94% reduction in hospitalizations after getting COVID. 

While some of the latest variants are unfortunately very good at evading immunity provided by vaccines, the newly developed bivalent boosters target BA.5 and BA.4 variants. Those variants are the most common at the moment, so the boosters should be highly effective at preventing serious cases. 

Second, consider asking visitors for proof of a best-in-class negative test. Many event planners and facilities choose to ask for proof of a negative “home test,” but home antigen tests do not provide certainty of safety. The FDA recently reviewed these tests and indicated that they are most effective when used serially, meaning three tests taken roughly 48 hours apart. Trying to plan for that kind of testing regime makes visits more complicated, plus you have no guarantee that a visitor has tested properly. 

Another option is a highly-accurate PCR test. Unfortunately, most lab-based PCR tests take up to three to five days to return results. COVID-19 takes just takes, on average, three and a half days to incubate. This means people can get tested with a PCR test, get their result three days later, and still bring COVID into the facility where it could spread among your senior population. Ideally, you should look for rapid microfluidics antigen tests (M-Ag) or Point-of-Care PCR testing options that can return results in minutes from innovative local or mobile COVID-19 testing labs in your area. 

Third, send out a guide to potential visitors during the holidays. Family members of people in your facilities will naturally want to keep their loved ones safe in every way possible. Encourage guests to prepare ahead of time with serial testing or a highly-accurate rapid test. Explain that an updated booster shot should be a priority, and recommend that all visitors consider the risks of long COVID and take appropriate precautions. 

There’s no reason your senior population should remain isolated during this time — they can enjoy their family and friends during the holidays while you maintain best-in-class safety. 

Bill Stone is the CEO of AllClear Healthcare, a next-generation personalized health diagnostics company providing rapid, highly accurate and affordable COVID-19, gastrointestinal and respiratory testing to the general public and corporate partners.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.