Image of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

Long-term care providers must “cut through the noise” and encourage booster shot uptake as COVID-19 cases and outbreaks rise rapidly in nursing homes nationwide, top federal health officials said in a Thursday stakeholder call.

Boosters have proven a necessity for maintaining infection control and resident quality of life in the face of the rapidly spreading omicron variant, officials told providers, facility staff and resident advocates who joined the call.

A large number of residents and staff have completed their initial vaccination series, but many fewer have received a booster, they said. The numbers stand at 67% for nursing home residents, while less than 28% of staff have gotten the additional shot — lower than the national average.

“The booster is particularly important … because we’ve seen that omicron can evade some of our defenses,” said Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D. But a booster allows the immune system build the equivalent of a bigger army to fight the variant, he said.

Murthy encouraged nursing home providers to look beyond persistent vaccine misinformation and the idea that if vaccinated people become infected, the drugs don’t work. 

“Remember that the most important role of a vaccine is to save your life and keep you out of the hospital,” he said. “You will hear of people who test positive and … have mild symptoms, but what the vaccine has done in those cases has taken what could have been a more severe illness and knocked it down.”

Murthy suggested that providers “cut through some of that noise” and look at what doctors nationwide are telling their patients and family members. “The recommendations are very consistent about people getting vaccinated and boosted,” Murthy said. That’s because the data shows the vaccines are not only effective, but “remarkably safe,” he added.

Officials, meanwhile, are concerned with the increase in nursing home outbreaks, said Kara Jacobs-Slifka, M.D., a CDC long-term care and infectious disease expert. “In the past few weeks, we have seen an Increase in the number of facilities with new SARS-CoV-2 infections and a pretty rapid increase in the size of those outbreaks,” she said.

Where staff vaccination rates are high, resident infection rates are lower, Murthy reminded listeners. “The vaccines and the boosters are not just good for you, but they’re good for the people around you — especially your patients, who may be more vulnerable.” 

Visitation rules and isolation guidance

Headshot of CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure
CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure

Officials urged listeners to keep a steady hand on infection control measures and to continue to allow safe visitation for the sake of residents’ emotional well-being. They recommended providers reach out to state and local health departments for help when needed — including on how to handle visitors — a thorny subject for some nursing home operators, McKnight’s Long-Term Care News reports.

“Health departments have a long-standing role in helping facilities manage any type of outbreak, including how to structure visitation,” said Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “CMS will send out best practices … to all states to make sure everyone has the information needed to keep residents safe.”

The speakers also reminded facility administrators and staff to follow new CDC guidance for healthcare workers regarding isolation and quarantine after COVID-19 exposure or infection. This is not to be confused with the new recommendations for the general public, and it includes details on masking and testing upon return to work, they emphasized.

In addition, the guidance for the general public does not apply to nursing home residents, patients or visitors, noted Jacobs-Slifka. 

Brooks-LaSure and other officials acknowledged that nursing home providers are exhausted after two years of pandemic stress, but implored them not to give up fighting for the well-being and safety of the residents in their care. 

“COVID-19 didn’t take a break over the holidays,” Brooks-LaSure added. “With your partnership, we have tools we need to keep fighting COVID-19. The COVID-19 vaccines including the booster are our most effective weapon in the fight against the virus.” 

For more on the provider response to visitation rules and visitors, visit McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.