New report: COVID-19 cases in nursing homes drop by 80 percent after mass vaccinations

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New report: COVID-19 cases in nursing homes drop by 80 percent after mass vaccinations

Virus still a threat: 400+ homes reported first cases in 2021 after none in 2020


BOSTON — Despite a sharp overall drop in coronavirus infections in nursing homes in recent months, hundreds of U.S. nursing homes that weathered 2020 without any COVID-19 cases have reported new cases since 2021 began. This happened even though the elderly were among the first to get COVID-19 vaccines during the initial rollout in mid-December, fueling an 83 percent drop in new cases in nursing homes nationwide by early February. In Massachusetts, new cases dropped by 74 percent.

These surprising revelations are among the findings of the third in a series of reports by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group, based on analyzing government data about nursing homes and COVID-19.

Over the course of the pandemic, the nation’s 15,000 nursing homes have been COVID-19 bellwethers. These new cases are a clear indication that while things are getting better, our society still faces risks from the virus. However, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) this month issued new guidance, relaxing visitation restrictions.

“With nearly 550,000 Americans dead by now, we must continue to act with caution, and learn from our past experience,” said Deirdre Cummings, Consumer Program Director, MASSPIRG Education Fund. “Impatience could needlessly put lives and communities at risk – again, especially given we may be just weeks away from more widely available vaccinations, and a much safer environment in nursing homes.”

Our latest analysis points to other areas of concern, including:

  • More than 600 nursing homes nationwide reported three or more new resident cases during the first week of February, more than a month after mass vaccinations started in nursing homes.
  • In Massachusetts, 13 or 3.6% of 361 homes reported three or more new resident cases during the same week.
  • More than 7,000 nursing home residents contracted COVID-19 once last year, recovered and then were reinfected between late November and early February.
  • While shortages of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment have improved, nearly 6 percent of nursing homes in February reported a critical shortage of N95 masks, which experts say are the single best protection against contracting COVID-19.

Undoubtedly, though, the overall situation in nursing homes is improving.

Our analysis found that new cases among nursing home residents soared through the fall, reaching 33,212 nationwide for the week ending Dec. 20, when nursing homes started administering vaccinations. Cases dropped by several thousand in just the first week. By the early February, new cases had plunged to 5,573 — a decline of 83 percent in seven weeks.

The declines were similarly impressive among staff. During the peak week, ending Dec. 13, 28,457 nursing home workers nationwide tested positive for new cases. That dropped to 5,308 — a decrease of 81 percent in seven weeks.

“This fantastic news validates what everyone was hoping — that the vaccines work. What’s stunning is how quickly cases plummeted after residents received just one shot,” said Cummings.

However, our reporting shows that vaccines aren’t continuing in all homes for new residents or residents who received only the first shot.

The report includes research that points to the benefits achieved after the first of two shots for the vaccine brands that require a second dose. It also discusses some of the impact on nursing homes of the new $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

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MASSPIRG and U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund are independent, non-partisan groups that work for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful interests that threaten our health, safety, and wellbeing.