The American Health Care Association is calling on state and local health officials to not only give long-term care residents and workers first access to COVID-19 vaccines, once ready, but to also pledge to finish distribution among the population by March 1. 

AHCA President and CEO Mark Parkinson issued the call to action Monday during a press conference, saying if officials follow through with the request, “tens of thousands of lives in these facilities” will be saved. 

“It is a staggering statistic that less than 1% of the COVID cases in the United States have hit people in long-term care but over 40% of the deaths have occurred there,” Parkinson said. “As tragic as that statistic is, it gives us an incredible opportunity to make a huge difference in the mortality rate just by focusing the initial rounds of distribution [of vaccines] on this very vulnerable population.” 

Surging caseloads

Parkinson noted that at the start of the pandemic, skilled nursing facilities were experiencing about 10,000 new cases per week, but that figure has jumped to about 18,000 new cases per week in SNFs and he wouldn’t be surprised that number reaches 20,000 soon. He also noted that recent federal nursing home data shows weekly coronavirus deaths have increased to more than 2,000 per week. 

“The risk and benefits from this clearly demonstrate that the elderly need to be getting vaccinated. I’m recommending to my parents, who are not in a facility, but as soon as they can get vaccinated — they’re 88 and 89 — that they get vaccinated right away,” said David Gifford, M.D., AHCA’s chief medical officer.  

David Gifford, M.D., chief medical officer at AHCA and NCAL.

“The more we get that message out the more lives we’ll save in a nursing home setting as we go forward with that,” Gifford added.

A federal advisory panel last week recommended that long-term care residents and healthcare workers be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines. The federal government in the coming days is expected to decide on emergency use authorization (EUA) requests for two separate COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna. The vaccinations would come in two doses, and AHCA’s request calls for state governments to finish giving workers and residents both doses by the March 1 deadline.

“If we can get this done in the next 60 days, we can cut the overall COVID death rate by 40% — just by getting those initial four or five million doses out to that very important population,” Parkinson said. 

Monitoring staff vaccination rate

He added that the association will not issue a formal recommendation, as of now, regarding if providers should require workers to receive the vaccines once available. Parkinson said the organization first wants to see the vaccine acceptance rate among employees. 

“There are some legal questions about whether or not there can be a mandated use of a vaccine that’s under EUA, as opposed to normal authorization,” Parkinson explained. “Our hope is that we get widespread acceptance of the vaccine but if we don’t I assure you our organization, as well as individual operators, will be analyzing whether or not they can mandate the vaccine. We’re just hoping we don’t have to go there.”