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AARP: Florida Nursing Homes Tie For Nation's Highest COVID Death Rate As Vaccinations Lag

Physical therapist with patient in nuring home
According to an AARP report, 26 percent of Florida nursing homes reported new staff cases of COVID-19 in the four weeks leading up to June 20, twice the national average of 13 percent.

An AARP report shows that over four weeks that ended Aug. 22, the state's death rate for nursing home residents of 0.36 per 100 residents matched Alaska's.

As the delta variant of the coronavirus caused Florida to become a hotspot for COVID-19 in late July and August, the state’s nursing homes also felt the brunt.

Using federal data, the senior-advocacy group AARP released a report Wednesday that said 237 Florida nursing home residents died with COVID-19 during a four-week period that ended Aug. 22 — tied for the highest death rate in the nation.

Also, the report pointed to other indications of continuing struggles with COVID-19 in the state’s nursing homes, including lagging vaccination rates of workers and residents.

AARP Florida director Jeff Johnson said in a prepared statement that the numbers are a “heartbreaking reminder that the pandemic is not over” and urged people to get vaccinated.

“These sadly predictable data trends are also preventable,” Johnson said. “Our most vulnerable residents deserve to be protected from this devastating disease. The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones is to get vaccinated.”

With COVID-19 particularly dangerous to seniors and people with underlying health conditions, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have drawn heavy attention throughout the pandemic. For months, visitors were barred from entering nursing homes to try to prevent the spread of the virus, and Gov. Ron DeSantis made vaccinating nursing home residents a priority after shots became available in December.

As an indication of the toll, a Florida Department of Health report in early June said 11,531 residents and staff members of long-term care facilities had died of COVID-19. The department subsequently stopped releasing such information.

AARP releases periodic COVID-19 reports about all states, using data that nursing homes submit to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The information is compiled by the AARP Public Policy Institute and the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio.

The report released Wednesday showed that Florida during the four weeks that ended Aug. 22 had a COVID-19 death rate for nursing home residents --- 0.36 per 100 residents — that was tied with Alaska for the highest in the nation. The report also said 13 Florida nursing home staff members died of COVID-19 during the period.

Florida also had among the lowest rates in the nation of fully vaccinated nursing home workers and residents during the period. The report said 48.5% of nursing-home staff members were fully vaccinated, with only Louisiana lower at 47.9%. It said 73.6% of Florida nursing-home residents were fully vaccinated, with only Nevada and Arizona having lower rates.

The Biden administration in August announced that it will require nursing homes that participate in the Medicaid and Medicare programs to have fully vaccinated staffs. The White House last week expanded the vaccination mandate to other types of health-care facilities, such as hospitals.

The Florida Health Care Association, the state’s largest nursing home industry group, expressed initial concerns about a vaccination requirement that would only apply to nursing homes because of the potential that it could lead to workers leaving for other jobs. But the association indicated last week that expanding the requirement to other types of facilities helped ease concerns.

“We appreciate the administration and CMS for listening to the concerns about a federal mandate that only applied to nursing home staff,” Emmett Reed, the association’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “A broadened vaccination policy will help protect our residents who often interact with other health care professionals for their care needs. We know the vaccine is the safest way to protect our residents, and we support efforts that will help get more people vaccinated.”

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Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.