RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The number of weekly new COVID-19 cases in North Carolina’s nursing homes is about 2 percent of what they were during the peak in January, federal data show.
The newest set of numbers from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services paints an increasingly improving picture of the pandemic among the most vulnerable North Carolinians who were prioritized early in the vaccination rollout.
“The impact of the vaccine just really can’t be (overstated),” said Adam Sholar, president and CEO of the North Carolina Health Care Facilities Association, the trade group that represents the state’s 428 nursing homes.
Nursing homes report several figures each week to the federal government to help them assess the impact of the pandemic.
During the week of Jan. 17 — relatively early in the vaccination process, and at the height of the post-holiday surge — nursing homes in North Carolina reported 1,174 new cases and 216 deaths.
Those numbers have taken a staggering downturn, with just 16 new cases and six deaths reported during the week of March 31.
“Just a dramatic decline, which is wonderful for many reasons,” Sholar said.
It mirrors the signs of optimism found in a deeper look at the most recent biweekly report released Friday by the state Department of Health and Human Services: While 147 nursing homes were included on the active outbreak list, only 18 across the state showed an increase in cases from the report filed Tuesday.
None of the five with increases in the CBS 17 viewing area had more than two new cases.
North Carolina health data shows more than 310,000 people in the state have been fully vaccinated through the federal pharmacy program for nursing homes and their employees.
And while vaccine hesitancy among employees was a significant problem earlier in the rollout — at one point in January, roughly half of staff members declined it — Sholar says that has improved, moving closer to the industry’s goal of having 75 percent of staffers vaccinated.
“There was some hesitancy to be the first one to take a vaccine that had just been authorized for emergency use,” Sholar said. “So as as more and more people take them and we’re not seeing really any adverse effects and they’re proving to be incredibly effective and safe, more and more people are continuing to say, ‘You know what, I do want to take the vaccine,’ which I think is really, really good news.”
But there’s a question of whether those homes have enough total workers.
One in four nursing homes responding to the federal survey reported some kind of staff shortage.
But while that’s an improvement — in October, that ratio was one in three — it partly reflects that there are fewer residents needing care. Occupancy rates in the state have dropped from 76 percent last May to 70 percent now.
“Going from 140 nursing homes across the state reporting a staffing shortage to 105 — it’s still not good,” Sholar said. “It’s not where it needs to be.”
Sholar said the group estimated a need for 3,800 more nurses’ aides before the pandemic hit, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated those issues.
“Any profession, recruiting more people into it is the ability to compensate those individuals at a level that will bring people into the profession. And that’s something that we can’t do right now,” Sholar said, pointing out that the median nursing home in the state operates at a financial loss.
He says temporary COVID-19 relief funds have helped, and expects those occupancy rates to improve once the pandemic is over.
In the meantime, nursing homes are looking to state and federal leaders for support.
And the long-term solution, he says, is an increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates, which would provide “enough resources to have the number of caregivers to bring people into the profession, and to really make it a place that individuals want to spend a career. I think that’s really important.”