A vial of SARS-CoV2 COVID-19 vaccine in a medical research laboratory

Research that seeks ways to move the needle on COVID-19 vaccination in the long-term care workforce just got an $11 million boost.

The funds, granted by the congressionally authorized Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), support two studies aimed at finding ways to reduce high rates of vaccine hesitancy among workers in skilled nursing facilities and other long-term care settings.

The lag in vaccination rates among long-term care workers have become a source of concern among geriatricians, who predict that unvaccinated staff members will continue to be a major source of virus transmission. What’s more, immunization rates have slowed nationwide, PCORI reported in a release.

To complicate matters, many long-term care workers are counted among those at high risk for severe illness and death due to the COVID-19. These groups include lower wage-earners, immigrants, and some racial and ethnic groups. What’s more, older adults who are not yet or cannot be immunized are the most likely to become severely sick or die if exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease, PCORI said.

One study, based at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, will recruit 6,000 workers at 30 long-term care facilities in the state of Washington and at another 30 facilities in Georgia. The other, at Dartmouth College, will recruit 1,800 direct care workers nationwide. Each study will compare methods of encouraging vaccine education and uptake.

Concern over variants is driving push to tackle hesitancy

The push to reduce vaccine hesitancy in healthcare workers has gained momentum in recent months as new and more infectious coronavirus gene variants make headway in the United States. In fact, vaccine mandates for all U.S. healthcare workers was recommended in a proposal released this week by a group of seven professional organizations, including long-term care industry representatives. Many workers are unlikely to get a shot without it being a condition of employment, they argued.

Whether this proposal will be heeded remains to be seen. Long-term care operators struggling with a tight labor market and staff shortages may be wary of rocking the boat with vaccine mandates, some industry experts say.

Unless or until that happens, operators remain tasked with encouraging individual staff members to get the shot. 

Evidence from the newly funded studies, meanwhile, also could help not only with this, but with encouraging vaccination for other diseases, said PCORI’s Executive Director Nakela L. Cook, M.D., MPH. 

“After all, flu, for example, kills tens of thousands of older adults every year, and greater understanding of the benefits of yearly flu vaccination could reduce deaths from that disease as well,” she said.

PCORI is an independent nonprofit organization authorized by Congress in 2010 to fund healthcare research in the public interest. It funded the current studies via a special allocation meant to confront the health crisis posed by COVID-19.