It is somewhat amazing to still be talking about vaccinations as we lurch toward a third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet here we are. Everywhere we turn, we see new evidence that so-called “vaccine hesitancy” is lengthening the pandemic and costing lives.
While the overall vaccination numbers are pretty good, especially in Massachusetts, the pockets of holdouts — some of them quite large — are giving the virus new, longer life and an opportunity to evolve and adapt. “Pretty good” is not good enough.
The latest sobering statistic comes from the New England Journal of Medicine, which released a study Wednesday showing more than 4,770 COVID-19 cases and 700 COVID-related nursing home deaths across the country could have been prevented in the United States over just a two-month period this summer had more nursing home staff been vaccinated.
“The driver of cases, and ultimately fatalities, is staff,” study coauthor David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, told the Boston Globe. “It’s important you have staff vaccinated because they are really the vectors here, they are the ones who bring it into the facility.”
Nationwide, roughly 75% of nursing home workers are vaccinated. In some states, the number is as low as 31%.
And it doesn’t matter if the nursing home residents themselves are vaccinated, researchers said.
“Even though the residents are protected with their vaccination, they’re still relying on an additional layer of protection from the staff,” said Brian McGarry, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Rochester and a study coauthor.
On the surface, the numbers in Massachusetts are exemplary, with about 97% of nursing home workers receiving two shots. But as of this week, only a little more than 40% have received their booster, a worrying number as the delta variant remains strong and the omicron variant continues to spread.
“We are strongly urging all eligible staff, residents, and their families to get the COVID-19 vaccine booster as soon as possible as this continues to be the number one tool for controlling and preventing the spread of the virus,” said Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association.
The sad fact is that nursing homes are ahead of the curve. Other groups that deal directly with the public have been slow to commit fully to vaccinations, including the Massachusetts State Police troopers union, which has fought mandated shots every step of the way. That fight puts the public at risk.
Fortunately, an investigator with the state Department of Labor Relations this week dismissed a complaint from the troopers union that Gov. Charlie Baker acted in bad faith when he signed an executive order in August requiring that all executive branch employees show proof of vaccination or face disciplinary action, including the possibility of being fired.
The investigator found, rightly, that Baker’s order was meant to “protect the health and safety of all Massachusetts workers and residents and to ensure that the executive department continues to function. I therefore agree with the Commonwealth that the public interest in ending the COVID-19 pandemic amounts to circumstances beyond the Commonwealth’s control.”
If the nursing home numbers aren’t enough of a wake up call, one needs only to consider the current situation in New Hampshire, where Gov. Chris Sununu has mobilized the National Guard to help deal with a surge in the Granite State.
“The winter surge is definitely upon us,” Sununu said. “We know cases and hospitalizations continue to rise. We want everyone to get vaccinated because that’s the way out of this, without a doubt.”
“I don’t think we’re going to peak out here for quite a few more weeks,” he said. “Hopefully I’m wrong, hopefully we’re toward the end of this. Unfortunately, I think these numbers are going to continue to rise as we get deeper into the winter.”
Unfortunately, those numbers are unlikely to go down until vaccination rates improve, no matter how good they seem right now.