Nurse applying vaccine on patient's arm wearing face mask

Several Colorado senior care facilities are at the center of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 investigation, and public health officials there are zeroing in on unvaccinated staff as the cause of breakthrough cases.

At an unnamed memory care facility in the Grand Junction area, 16 fully vaccinated residents were infected and four died, according to CDC information reported by The Associated Press on Thursday. 

The investigation, which started in May, underscores concerns among public health officials in Colorado and beyond that the protection afforded nursing home residents and other seniors through vaccines is now at risk because of non-vaccinated individuals.

Mesa County, home to Grand Junction, is a hot spot for the Delta variant, which has spurred  COVID-19 case increases in all 50 states and triggered the deployment of federal surge teams.

The CDC has not released the findings of its Colorado investigation publicly but told the AP it plans to publish results in an upcoming weekly report. At a location referred to as “Facility A,” 42% of staff were still not fully vaccinated, compared to about 9% of residents.

Nationally, about 59% of nursing home staff are fully vaccinated. In some states, the fully vaccinated rate is closer to 40%.

In Colorado, the CDC found a COVID-19 infection rate of 30% among vaccinated residents and staff at the facility, with residents accounting for the vast majority of cases. Of 16 fully vaccinated residents infected at the memory care facility, the CDC found that 13 developed symptoms, described as mild in most cases, according to the wire service. The four deceased residents were in hospice care and had a median age of 93.

“Our older populations are potentially more susceptible to the variants even if they are vaccinated,” said Fikadu Tafesse, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Medicine. “Older people aren’t entirely safe just because they’re vaccinated; the people around them really need to be vaccinated as well.”

Tafesse is lead author of a study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found older people appear to have fewer antibodies against the novel coronavirus. Vaccine recipients in their 20s had nearly seven times the level of antibodies as those between 70 and 82, and lab results showed a linear drop off with advancing age.

Unattractive numbers

Though deaths and confirmed infections among nursing home staff dropped precipitously  after vaccinations began in December, deaths among staff have begun creeping up again.

In Indiana, seven residents died from COVID-19 at a facility where 44% of staff was fully vaccinated, said Howard County health officer Emily Backer, M.D. Five fully vaccinated residents were among the infected; one of them died.

Laura Gelezunas said the nursing home caring for her mother wasn’t transparent about how the older, vaccinated woman caught COVID-19. Gelezunas said her mother’s only visitors have been her vaccinated brother and his wife. Though Gelezunas asked that only vaccinated workers care for her mother, the nursing home could not ensure that.

“My mom is bedridden,” Gelezunas said. “I got people taking intimate care of her and you’re telling me … that at $7,500 a month, that my mom can’t have someone that’s vaccinated take care of her?” 

Indiana county health official Backer blamed misinformation for the ongoing risks to nursing home residents. 

“It’s really sad because I think we have the power to end this with vaccination,” she said. “Nobody else needs to die from this.”