The nation’s top health official met with US nursing home leaders for the second time in two weeks Wednesday to discuss what he called concerningly low COVID-19 vaccination rates among long-term care residents.

The leaders of the two largest US nursing home associations responded by reminding US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra that federal authorities have obligations of their own to better enable vaccine uptake and education.

“We … stressed to the Secretary that it is imperative that HHS do their part,” said a statement from LeadingAge after the virtual meeting. “Success in increasing vaccination rates requires action from federal leaders, and we were glad that the Secretary reiterated that his department would continue to work on this issue.”

LeadingAge urged HHS to help ease logistical issues that have slowed vaccination rates. The association was represented at the meeting by President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan and Senior Vice President of Public Policy/Advocacy Ruth Katz. 

The group asked Becerra to enable single-dose vaccine orders for nursing homes. It also requested new policy to allow pharmacies to bill Medicare Part B for vaccinating residents during a Part A stay. 

In addition, LeadingAge asked federal officials to encourage hospitals to offer vaccines on discharge, and to communicate more directly with residents and their family members. It was not clear Wednesday whether HHS would be willing or able to meet any of the requests.

“It’s also vital the HHS recognize and acknowledge that nursing homes are part of the larger community,” LeadingAge officials said. “When vaccination uptake rates are woefully low among the general public, it’s critical that public health officials educate the public more broadly — to the benefit of the entire nursing home sector and their surrounding communities.” 

This week’s meeting was a follow-up to another virtual meeting Dec. 21 that discussed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s  December 2023 findings that just one-third (33%) of long-term care facility residents were up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations. 

Although that rate is much better than the general public’s, Becerra reminded providers Wednesday that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services requires all nursing homes to offer COVID-19 vaccines to residents and staff and educate them on their benefits.

Reports released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on vaccination coverage and treatment for respiratory viruses in the United States revealed a mixed bag about nursing home vaccination rates. As of early December, there were significantly higher rates of vaccine coverage among nursing home residents than the general population, but vaccination rates among the general population over the age of 65 were slightly higher than in nursing homes.

‘Vaccine reluctance’ blamed

The president and CEO of the nation’s largest nursing home association called Wednesday’s discussion “productive,” but he also spread responsibility for getting more people vaccinated and overcoming “the nation’s primary challenge in increasing rates: vaccine reluctance.”  

“We will reinforce our ongoing efforts to educate residents and staff about the benefits and importance of vaccines, and we appreciate the administration’s support in strengthening public health messaging to combat misinformation and build trust,” said American Health Care Association President and CEO Mark Parkinson in a statement. 

Joining him at the meeting was AHCA Chief Medical Officer David Gifford, who noted less than three weeks ago that nursing facility residents were far ahead of members of the general public when it came to vaccinations.

“While nursing home residents are more than three times as likely to be up to date on their COVID vaccinations compared to the general public, nursing homes do not operate in a vacuum,” Gifford said at the time. “Unfortunately, we face the same challenges that we’re seeing across the US population at large: vaccine misinformation, hesitancy and fatigue. We need a collective approach to boost vaccine access and uptake, and AHCA/NCAL will continue to seek support of public health officials and the broader health care community.”

Parkinson repeated the sentiment Wednesday.

“We need a coordinated and consistent campaign from public health officials and every healthcare provider to convey this message and convince seniors to roll up their sleeves,” he said. “This is important work that will save lives, and we can only be successful by working together.”

Becerra said he appreciated providers “understanding the urgency of this issue” and also requested that they share best practices and any information that can help build vaccination rates.

LeadingAge agreed that learning from “high-performing nursing homes” should help the sector improve. The association of nonprofit organizations also touted, as it did after the Dec. 21 meeting, that LeadingAge members’ average vaccination rate is 10 percentage points above the national average.

Nursing homes were the single setting hardest hit by COVID-19 infections and mortality, particularly before vaccines were developed to combat the virus.