Public health experts say a vaccination campaign in Illinois nursing homes, despite a sluggish launch, is starting to pay off.
Recorded COVID-19 infections and deaths among long-term care residents have plummeted over the past week, according to state public health data posted Friday afternoon. A month into the vaccination campaign, those tallies are now dropping faster than COVID-19 numbers in the general population, where inoculations have only just begun.
“Vaccine-induced immunity — and natural infection having occurred in many of those facilities — are combining to protect a meaningful proportion of those people,” said Dr. Ronald Hershow, who directs epidemiology and biostatistics in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health. “There’s no longer a virginal introduction of the virus, where it comes in and ricochets around the facility.”
The Illinois Department of Public Health recorded 843 new coronavirus infections among congregate care residents during the week ending Friday, down from 1,705 the previous week. The new figure constitutes just 3.1% of cases this past week in the state’s general population — compared to 5.0% during the previous week and a 9.4% peak during the week ending Dec. 18.
Nursing home residents now account for their smallest portion of the state’s weekly infection tally since October.
COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents are also falling fast. IDPH recorded 198 this past week, down from 277 the previous week and a peak of 605 during the week ending Dec. 18. The new figure amounts to 37.9% of the coronavirus fatalities in the general population, the lowest share of any week since November.
“If you get 70 of a facility’s 100 residents vaccinated, you have a microcosm of herd immunity,” said Dr. Mia Taormina, a DuPage Medical Group infectious disease specialist. “You may still have staff bringing the virus into the building, but there won’t be sudden spikes of the illness.”
The encouraging infection and death numbers in Illinois nursing homes come despite a vaccination pace widely panned as too slow, especially as more dangerous COVID-19 variants circulate throughout the country.
CVS Health and Walgreens have federal contracts to vaccinate residents and staff members in Illinois nursing homes. Since the campaign’s Dec. 28 launch, the pharmacies have administered only 131,401 of the 496,100 doses now “allocated” by Illinois for residents and staff members of long-term care facilities, according to IDPH data posted Friday.
State officials have blamed the pace on allegedly insufficient hiring by CVS and Walgreens. The pharmacies have not answered how many staffers they have added for Illinois nursing-home vaccinations but have said they are keeping up with an inoculation schedule devised by Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration.
CVS has said its obstacles include a refusal by some nursing home workers to be vaccinated. Only around 45% of staffers are agreeing to be inoculated, according to estimates from a pharmacy spokesman, a nursing home lobbyist and a leader of SEIU Healthcare, the industry’s main union.
The state’s nursing home workforce is heavily Black, according Shaba Andrich, a vice president of the union. The union is urging its members to be vaccinated, but he said many are leery after mistreatment by both the medical system and their employers.