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Skilled nursing occupancy declined in September, weeks before the omicron variant of COVID-19 arrived and further threatened the industry’s recovery. 

New data from the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care found that SNF occupancy decreased 27 basis points from 75.2% in August to 75.1% in September following several months of modest growth. It was still, however, 355 basis points higher 

from the low of 71.5% reached in January 2021. 

“There is potential for additional challenges due to a lack of booster shot prioritization among skilled nursing properties, the arrival of the fall/winter season, spread of the new omicron variant, and persistent labor shortages,” Bill Kauffman, NIC senior principal, wrote Wednesday.

It remains unclear how many nursing homes have conducted booster shot clinics and how many residents have received additional doses.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has been slow to make SNF information regarding boosters public. The agency told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News this week that data on COVID-19 booster administration to nursing home residents and staff will be available on in the “near future,” and the information is expected to appear on the Care Compare site within the next few months. 

As questions remain about vaccines’ ability to protect against new COVID variants and hospitals again delay non-emergent procedures, the skilled nursing industry continues to struggle to regain reputation and patients.

“In general, there remains cautious optimism about improving occupancy trends but there remain challenges including the rapid spread of the contagious COVID-19 delta variant in the summer and fall months as well as labor shortages, which have caused some properties to limit new patient admissions,” Kauffman noted.

The occupancy dip was reported as state officials across the United States take steps, like increasing the National Guard presence in some facilities, to help alleviate worries about the omicron variant. Early data from the White House found that omicron cases appear to have led to fewer hospitalizations but it’s more highly transmissible than the delta variant.