Amid a report released Wednesday, Jan. 12 by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) showing an alarming spike in new COVID-19 cases in nursing homes in the U.S., it is not immediately clear how facilities in Highland County are being impacted.
There are no current COVID-19 cases among residents or staff at the Salyer Adult Group Home in Hillsboro, according to Denise Schott, the facility’s manager.
“I believe it was November or December of 2020 when we had COVID come through and rear its ugly head,” she said. “We are following the guidelines, and we have our visits in one location. We’re small, so we only have 12 residents, but they are all COVID free.”
Vaccines are not mandated at the facility. “We do not have a vaccine policy because we are a private owned small group home, and I feel that it is everybody’s own right, residents and staff,” said Schott.
Crestwood Ridge Nursing and Rehab Administrator Ramona O’Bryant, however, said she has seen an increase in cases at the Hillsboro facility during the past several weeks.
Crestwood mandates vaccines for employees.
“Mandatory vaccination for staff has been our company’s policy since June,” said O’Bryant. “However, our approach with those who did not wish to comply has been one of education and encouragement rather than termination of employment. We are unable for a variety of reasons to mandate vaccination by our residents, but strongly encourage it and the vast majority have taken advantage.”
O’Bryant said Crestwood; however, will not be able to continue to use that approach. “With today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, we will now be legally required under federal law to terminate unvaccinated staff members unless they have an approved medical or religious exemption,” she said.
The Times-Gazette reached out to other Highland County assisted living communities, but did not receive responses by press time.
The AHCA/NCAL report attributes the nursing home spike to community spread among the general population due to the highly contagious omicron variant.
“As soon as news of omicron broke in December, we were very concerned this variant would lead to a surge of cases in the U.S. and therefore, an increase in cases in nursing homes and unfortunately it has,” said AHCA/NCAL President and CEO Mark Parkinson. “We urged members of the public to help us protect our nation’s seniors ahead of the holiday season, and we reiterate that plea today. Help support our front line caregivers and safeguard our most vulnerable by getting vaccinated, boosted and masked.”
The report also showed that while COVID-related deaths among nursing home residents have increased in recent weeks, the rate of deaths is 10 times less compared to December of 2020 and cited high vaccination and booster rates among residents as the reason for the decrease.
“We anticipated this would happen and called on long-term care providers to prepare for omicron by doubling down on their efforts to get residents boosted as well as their infection prevention measures,” said AHCA/NCAL Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Gifford. “Fortunately, the vaccines appear to be working against omicron, but we must remain vigilant and steadfast on vaccinating and boosting as many residents and staff members as quickly as possible.”
The AHCA/NCAL is advocating for nursing homes and assisted living communities by urging public health officials at every level of government to take immediate steps to support them during the omicron surge by prioritizing long-term care for testing, treatments and workforce support.
“We cannot weather this storm alone. We’re extremely concerned how this surge will impact our already dire labor crisis as caregivers must isolate if they test positive. Staffing shortages impact access to care for our vulnerable residents and impede our ability to help overwhelmed hospitals,” said Gifford.
According to the AHCA/NCAL, the nursing home workforce has 234,000 fewer caregivers than when the pandemic began, reducing the total by 15 percent.
A recent letter from the AHCA/NCAL to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services urged department secretary Xavier Becerra to extend the public health emergency declaration, which expires Jan. 16, 2022, and prioritize long-term care facilities for testing and treatment.
“With the high spread of omicron and breakthrough cases among those vaccinated, the need for rapid and reliable testing as well as treatments for our resident population – who is at the highest risk for COVID-19 complications and hospitalizations – is crucial,” Parkinson wrote in the letter.
Reach John Hackley at 937-402-2571.