Leaders of the nation’s largest nursing home association knew there would be decreases of coronavirus deaths and cases at facilities following the availability of the COVID-19 vaccines. But the rate at which the numbers have plummeted across the country has come as a huge shock to providers. 

“A peak of 30,000 [new] cases per week just three months ago, now just 3,000 cases per week — a 90% drop,” Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association, said during a CNN interview late last week. He added that the reference data was “about two weeks old,” implying the numbers could be even more favorable.

“As I talk to providers around the country this week, they are telling me that they have zero cases. It’s absolutely astonishing. We all thought that the vaccine would reduce cases. I don’t think any of us thought that we would have zero cases but that’s the case in almost all the nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the country. It’s amazing and fantastic,” he said. 

Parkinson attributed the success to state and local governments prioritizing long-term care residents and staff for the shots, and just how well the vaccine is working. 

“It’s really hard to put into words how well this vaccine works. There were very few side effects with these shots and the results speak for themselves,” Parkinson said. “In most facilities right now, absolutely no COVID.”

He acknowledged, however, that vaccine acceptance by staff is still a problem.

“That’s been the one negative thing about the program,” he explained. “We had really good uptake from the residents — 80% to 90% of the residents said ‘yes’ and took the vaccine. Unfortunately, with staff we’re only at about 40% right now.” 

Last week, AHCA and LeadingAge set a new target of getting 75% of staff vaccinated by June 30. The groups plan to hit that goal by tackling the “misinformation out there” about the vaccines.

“As we’re able to beat those down, we think we’re going to be able to get the staff vaccination rates up. Even without that high level, we’re still seeing no cases in the facility. I think we have some level of herd immunity even at the numbers that we have right now,” Parkinson said. 

He added that the next steps should include the federal government setting aside doses for incoming residents and new staff members, and also the reopening of facilities.

“These residents haven’t been around their loved ones now for almost a year,” Parkinson noted. “It’s been incredibly difficult on them and their loved ones. Now that we’ve reached this level of success, we really think it’s time to open the buildings up.”

It’s OK to start thinking optimistically ahead, he told host Kate Bolduan.

“I think we have the clinical nightmare in nursing homes behind us, and now we can really get to recovering from the emotional side that the residents and the staff and the incredible trauma they’ve gone through,” he added. “If we just continue to stay vigilant with this program, all of the horrible stats on cases and deaths in nursing homes, those are over, those are history.”