When the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the nation, it was nursing homes that quickly captured national attention as facilities grappled with a virus that spread quickly among staff and vulnerable residents, leading to thousands of deaths in California alone.
Now, months after COVID-19 vaccines became available, there are Southern California nursing homes with sizable percentages of their staff — who were among the first to be eligible for the shots — still not vaccinated.
In a bid to increase vaccinations, Gov. Gavin Newsom last week announced that the state will require all health care personnel to either show proof of vaccination or undergo weekly coronavirus testing. But he stopped short of issuing a statewide vaccine mandate for medical workers.
As of Monday, nearly 79% of California’s nursing home staff were fully vaccinated, putting California among the top three states in the nation for staff vaccinations at nursing facilities, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which shares information reported by nursing homes to the CDC.
Still, in Los Angeles County, where 86% of skilled nursing facility staff are fully vaccinated, there are several facilities with 30 to 40% of staff not fully inoculated, according to county data.
Why are some health care workers opting not to get the shot? Officials say it’s the same reason other people aren’t: Misinformation.
“People who work in health care facilities are subject to the same information and misinformation that everyone else in the community receives,” said Dr. Brad Spellberg, chief medical officer of LAC+USC Medical Center.
Spellberg noted that doctors and nurses typically have higher vaccination rates than other types of workers at health care facilities.
Nursing facilities have always been of particular concern because residents are older and many have underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19.
More long-term care chains and advocates have recently been shifting their stance and calling for mandatory vaccinations for staff.
While he was initially against mandating vaccines for nursing home staff, Dr. Michael Wasserman, chair of the Public Policy Committee for the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine, said he has changed his mind.
“There’s no question anymore, that to put unvaccinated people around nursing home residents is dangerous.” Wasserman said. “And so, in my mind, we have no choice anymore but to vaccinate the staff.”
Wasserman, who is a member of California’s Vaccine Advisory Committee, said it’s “frustrating” to see staff not get vaccinated when the shots could save their lives, and the lives of those they care for.
“At this point, and unless we vaccinate everyone, more people are going to die,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman said the state’s weekly testing requirement was “a step in the right direction. But the real solution is mandating the vaccine.”
Genesis HealthCare, a national post-acute care, announced on Monday that it is making COVID-19 vaccines a requirement for employees. The chain operates a handful of facilities in L.A. and Orange counties.
And last week, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living — which represents more than 14,000 nursing facilities nationwide — came out in support of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies for health care workers.
Before vaccinations, nursing homes had to adopt strict restrictions to save lives as the virus continued its relentless spread.
Many nursing home residents had to contend with isolation. Images of families separated from their loved ones by glass windows and doors at nursing homes became synonymous with the pandemic.
“When you compare the value of a vaccine to all those measures, it’s not even close,” Wasserman said, comparing vaccines to the restrictions residents had to live with.
The vaccines brought more freedom to the nursing facilities, many of which started welcoming visitors after banning them for months.
Now, as the state sees another coronavirus surge, experts fear more lives will be lost.
L.A. County is already reporting more outbreaks and infections at skilled nursing facilities.
“This was expected in the context of increasing community transmission because staff and residents with community exposures were more likely to get (an) infection and introduce it into the facility,” an L.A. County Department of Public Health spokesperson told KTLA in an email.
The spokesperson said there isn’t enough data to say whether facility vaccination rates are linked to the outbreaks.
Spellberg stressed the urgency of getting everyone vaccinated.
“If we want our lives back, everybody has to get vaccinated,” he said. “And the people who choose not to vaccinate are allowing the virus to persist, which affects everyone else in society. So that’s the message, it is time to get vaccinated.”
At Hyde Park Healthcare Center in Los Angeles, only around half of the staff are vaccinated, according to county and federal data.
“Obviously in the industry we’d like things to be higher, but I don’t know if that’s our actual rate or not,” said a man at the facility who only identified himself as a manager.
One employee at the facility, who didn’t wish to be identified, said she felt said her life depends on all workers getting vaccinated.
“How important is it that all healthcare workers are vaccinated? It’s very important for me, because I’m diabetic,” she told KTLA.
It’s hard to nail down exact, up-to-date vaccination rates for specific nursing facility due to discrepancies in the data from counties, the CDC and from management at different nursing facilities. The L.A. County Department of Public Health told KTLA it’s looking into the issue.
It’s unclear how much the new weekly testing requirements will increase vaccination rates at facilities.
“The urgency to vaccinate health care workers was shown in the prioritization of the vaccine being available to those first,” said Dr. Eraina Ortega, director of the California Department of Human Resources. “We certainly hope to see the numbers in those types of facilities, the numbers of people vaccinated grow in the coming days.”
The bottom line: Experts say stepping up vaccinations is the county’s best chance to fight the virus.
“I took an oath to protect my patients, and that oath informs me that everyone should be vaccinated. That’s the only way we’re getting close to normal in this country,” Wasserman said.