Skilled nursing occupancy climbed ever-so-slightly for a second straight month in March, reaching 71.6%, according to the latest NIC MAP data released Thursday afternoon.

The report prepared by NIC MAP Vision finds SNF occupancy gained 49 basis points over February, with overall gains of 89 points since the industry reported a record low occupancy of  70.7% in January. That low came in the midst of COVID-19’s third, disastrous wave and just before long-term care vaccination efforts reached a tipping point.

The question now is whether the industry can keep adding enough residents to rebound to the mid-80 percent range. SNFs reported 84.8% occupancy in February 2020, the month before the pandemic took hold.

Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association, had said 1% monthly increases would be required to restore pre-pandemic census. In April, he cited other data indicating 100-basis point, or 1% per-month increases each month since January.

But NIC MAP’s March survey data indicates the recovery pace could remain more moderate.

“We will have to see if the occupancy increase accelerates over the next couple quarters,” NIC Principle Bill Kauffman told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News Thursday. “The summer into the fall months will be important to tell if the sector is in fact rebounding in terms of census.”

NIC MAP noted in its report that occupancy “seems to have stabilized,” but noted it remained 13.2% below pre-pandemic levels.

NIC MAP data is based on a monthly sample collected by The National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, or NIC. This month’s sample included 29 providers operating 1,473 properties in 29 states.

Medicare patient day mix also declined for the third straight month to 12.2% of patient days, and it accounted for 21.4% of revenue mix. NIC MAP suggested the drop in both could be tied to less use of the three-day stay waiver, an exemption the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services made to allow providers to more easily treat COVID-19 patients under a Medicare-covered stay.

Meanwhile, NIC MAP found managed Medicare rates remained “relatively flat” month over month, while Medicaid revenue mix continued its recent increase to reach 49.3%. Medicaid revenue mix hit a high of 55% just prior to the pandemic.