Even though an increasing number of Louisiana's most vulnerable residents in long-term care centers are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, it could still be several weeks before the grim realities of the coronavirus pandemic abate, and with infections rising, the lumbering effort to protect them could not come soon enough.
Nearly two weeks after pharmacy giants Walgreens and CVS began administering the COVID-19 vaccine in Louisiana nursing homes and long term care facilities, barely more than 5,000 residents and staff had received their first doses as of Friday, according to numbers from the Louisiana Department of Health and CVS.
About 5,100 vaccines had been administered in long-term care facilities, according to a state Department of Health spokeswoman. That includes about 3,600 to residents and 1,500 to staff, she said.
Those numbers were lower than the numbers reported online by CVS Friday, however. The drugstore chain reported administering about 5,300 vaccines in Louisiana. Similar numbers were not provided by Walgreens.
It’s unclear why there is a discrepancy in the numbers, though CVS says the numbers it reports to states could be delayed.
More than 80,000 people in Louisiana, including healthcare workers and people over 70, have already received the first of two doses of vaccines since those efforts began last month in an effort that has been criticized for its slowness.
Like the rollout of vaccines in hospitals and for healthcare workers, the push at nursing homes has been slower than hoped. It also comes while infections in nursing homes are skyrocketing, with more than 500 new cases reported this past week statewide and some homes reporting dozens of new infections. The state does not report weekly increases at long-term care facilities that are not nursing homes.
The two drugstore chains, who have contracted with the federal government to provide vaccinations to residents and staff at long-term care facilities nationwide, has vowed to complete the first round of vaccines nationwide by Jan. 25.
That process began Dec. 28 in Louisiana when teams from CVS and Walgreens began setting up pop-up clinics at long-term care facilities to deliver Moderna’s vaccine to a population of about 22,000 nursing home residents in Louisiana.
But it could still be several weeks before the vaccines begin driving down the numbers of infections and deaths at those facilities.
Wednesday, the state’s approximately 270 nursing homes reported more than 500 new cases of the virus, according to numbers from the state. That is the highest number of reported new cases since August, during the so-called second surge.
The vaccine push is being hailed as a crucial step in gaining an upper hand against a virus that’s killed more than 350,000 nationwide. In Louisiana, the coronavirus has killed more than 2,500 residents and sickened thousands of employees at long-term care centers, according to state health department data compiled by The Advocate. The state has had nearly 7,500 deaths overall, according to state data reported Sunday.
Some homes are also seeing serious outbreaks. Forest Manor in Covington, which had one of the deadliest outbreaks last year when 38 residents died from the virus, went nearly three months without a case, administrator Clay Pere said in a statement.
But that changed Dec. 21, when a resident tested positive. Since then, the outbreak has ballooned, likely fueled by the high rate of cases in St. Tammany Parish. There are currently 46 COVID-patients in isolation at Forest Manor, Pere said. Most of them don’t have symptoms, he said.
David Tardo, whose 92-year-old mother Leatrice Lobell lives in Forest Manor, said the home had returned to the status it was at in the early days of the pandemic: residents largely confined to their rooms, and visitation, which was allowed in the fall as cases numbers dropped, has been suspended again, though some visits through closed windows are allowed.
“She said it’s very quiet,” Tardo said.
Lobell got her first dose of the vaccine last week, he said, and is anxiously awaiting the second. The vaccine takes about two weeks to deliver high protection against the virus after the second shot, and the initial dose can deliver some shielding against illness within a few days.
To date, 99 of the 131 residents at the facility have received the first shot of the vaccine, Pere said. The second round of vaccinations is expected to happen Jan. 27 or Jan. 30.
Forest Manor is hardly alone. More than a dozen homes reported double-digit increases in cases in the week that ended Wednesday. Four homes reported more than 20 cases, including Chateau Living Center of Kenner, which reported 43 new cases, according to the state’s data. There, officials said they had suspended visitation "for the foreseeable future" and were testing residents and staff twice weekly, per state and federal protocols.
So far, 180 of the homes residents and staff have received their first shot of the vaccine, said Samantha Broussard, Chateau's Director of Clinical Operations.
Dr. Joseph Kanter, who heads the state's coronavirus response at the Louisiana Department of Health, said it would be reasonable to expect deaths and severe illness to plummet as more vulnerable residents are protected through vaccines.
“What we care more about is less hospitalizations and deaths,” Kanter said in a recent interview. “I don’t have any doubt we’ll see those decline rapidly.”
Public health experts have stressed that keeping the virus out of homes housing the elderly is critical to keeping hospital admissions stable. A large outbreak at a nursing home, as was seen in the early months of the pandemic, often sees hospitals hit with a wave of patients, who are more prone to more severe illness from COVID-19.
Though some nursing homes are seeing sharp case rises, infection levels haven’t been near the same levels seen during the spring.
At that time, the growing spread forced shutdowns of nursing homes and other elder centers, leaving many feeling isolated and family members at times unsure how their loved ones were doing. Though restrictions on visitors were relaxed during the fall, they remain heavily restricted, often outdoors or behind glass shields.
Hugs and other physical contact are still not allowed in most cases.
Measures like regular, and sometimes twice-weekly, testing of staff and residents have also helped, said Tulane Epidemiologist Susan Hassig.
“We figured a way to keep it from running like a wildfire in an institution,” she said.
While the shots will prevent serious symptoms for those receiving them, health experts aren’t sure whether they can still spread the coronavirus, and it’s unlikely to have much impact on curbing infections in the greater population, Hassig said.
Despite those worries, health officials expect participation among residents will likely be high, a trend they hope steers workers into receiving a shot.
“They have everything to lose,” Kanter said. “They’ve seen a lot of their friends get sick, and I think there’s a lot of excitement to get the vaccine among residents.”