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‘Turning a corner’: COVID-19 infections, deaths falling at RI nursing homes

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With a week to go before the completion of vaccination clinics in Rhode Island nursing homes, coronavirus infections and deaths have plummeted across the state.

A Target 12 analysis of nursing home data shows weekly new infections fell from about 155 residents when vaccinations started in late December to just 15 residents this past week. Weekly COVID-19 deaths among residents fell from about 50 to roughly 15 during that same time period.

“The numbers are dropping and that is very exciting,” Rhode Island Health Care Association president Scott Fraser told Target 12 Wednesday. “We truly hope that we’re turning a corner.”

Nursing homes have suffered the worst of the pandemic in Rhode Island. More than 5,700 residents have become infected over the past year, and at least 1,430 have died after contracting the virus, according to the Department of Health. That’s more than half the state’s entire death toll of 2,487.

Health officials are wary of attributing the recent declines directly to vaccines, since infections, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen across the state and around the country over the same period. But there’s budding optimism — among Fraser and many others — that the vaccines are working as intended within a population that’s most at-risk of dying if the disease is contracted.

Dr. Megan Ranney, a nationally known professor of emergency medicine at Brown University, pointed Wednesday to a new Kaiser Family Foundation analysis that shows a 66% nationwide decline in weekly deaths among nursing home residents since vaccinations started on Dec. 21.

“If you needed more proof that #VaccinesWork for #covid19 – here you go,” Ranney tweeted.

During that same time period, the analysis showed weekly deaths among non-nursing home residents soared 61%. Still, researchers at Kaiser warned it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions.

“While timing of vaccine initiations in [nursing homes] and declines in cases and deaths coincide and suggest a link between the two, it is still unclear how much of the decline in cases and deaths can be attributed directly to the vaccine,” they wrote.

In Rhode Island, it’s not unusual for several nursing homes to report outbreaks and multiple deaths each week, a trend that got especially severe during the first and second waves of the virus in May and December, respectively.

In the past three weeks, no facility has reported more than four new infections among residents. The R.I. Veterans Home, one of the first nursing homes to begin vaccinations, hasn’t reported a single new infection in more than a month.

“This is wonderful news for the health and safety of our residents and staff,” Fraser said.

However, he added that it doesn’t mean the facilities are dropping their guards. “While it makes everyone breathe a little easier, our homes are still being vigilant in the use of PPE, constant cleaning and following state and federal guidelines to protect our residents and staff,” he said.

CVS Health and Walgreens have run specialty vaccination clinics at nursing homes as part of a federal partnership designed to target high-risk communities. The pharmacy companies are expected to finish inoculations at Rhode Island facilities next Wednesday, according to state health officials, bringing an end to one of the first elements of the state’s rollout strategy.

The CVS-Walgreens program has come been scrutiny in recent weeks, as the state was required to allocate an oversized amount of its limited weekly doses to the partnership. The required amount far exceeded demand, and as of last week state officials said there were 20,000 unused doses tied to the program.

“Vaccine allocations for CVS are based on an estimate held in queue, not the actual amount of vaccine that will be ordered and used for a clinic at a facility,” CVS spokesperson Matthew Blanchette said earlier this month. “Actual occupancy is less than bed count, and staff uptake has been lower than expected.”

Fraser said upward of 90% of residents accepted vaccines and have received second doses already. Uptake was slower among employees, with only about two-thirds of the workforce receiving vaccines. But Fraser said he’s heard from members that the numbers have since increased among employees as the vaccine was offered multiple times as part of the program.

“Anecdotally I’m told the numbers for staff went up considerably in the second and third rounds,” he said.

As of Tuesday, health officials said 62% of the doses allocated for the CVS-Walgreens program had been administered and the state and pharmacies have pledged to reallocate future unused doses to other parts of the state’s vaccination effort.

Once the pharmacies finish with the skilled nursing facilities, CVS and Walgreens are expected to continue with a parallel effort to vaccinate people in assisted-living facilities and other elderly housing sites. That effort will is expected to be finished by March 31.

“It has been a very strong effort on the part of all the partners,” Alysia Mihalakos, chief of the R.I. Health Department’s Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response, said during a meeting of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee on Tuesday. “There are over 25,000 individuals who got vaccinated in place and who are the most vulnerable … driving down hospitalization and death in this particular community.”

Fraser is hopeful that the trends will only continue to move in a positive direction.

“As with spikes showing up some two weeks after a holiday, I fully expect we will see these numbers continue to drop as we get two weeks past the last vaccination clinic,” he said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

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