Louisiana nursing home workers have a low vaccination rate. Biden mandate should change that.

Louisiana nursing home staff vaccination rate among lowest in the nation

By: , and - August 19, 2021 6:00 am

In this file photo, Deborah Trigueiro (R) greets her husband Douglas Smith, with a big hug from across the table at the Life Care Center of Kirkland on August 24, 2020 in Kirkland, Washington. This was only the second time they had seen each other in person since February when the coronavirus (COVID-19) raced through the facility. Prior to their first visit the week before they had had to talk through the window on a phone. The families cannot touch, must visit outside and stay socially distant. The Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home, was an early epicenter for coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Nursing homes will be required to ensure their staffers are vaccinated against COVID-19, or risk losing billions of federal healthcare dollars in the Medicaid and Medicare programs, the Biden administration announced Wednesday.

The president’s new mandate is likely to have a big impact on Louisiana, which has persistently had one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates among nursing home workers of any state in the country.

Only around half of the people who work in Louisiana nursing homes are vaccinated, compared with almost nine out of 10 nursing home residents, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

“I’m using the power of the federal government as a payer of healthcare costs to ensure we reduce those risks for our most vulnerable seniors,” President Joe Biden said at a news conference. “If you visit, live or work in a nursing home, you should not be at a high risk of contracting COVID from unvaccinated employees.”

Before Biden’s announcement, the Illuminator reached out to several nursing homes over the past week to ask whether they would consider requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for staff. None said they were considering such a mandate.

Louisiana Nursing Home Association Executive Director Mark Berger told the Illuminator before Biden’s announcement that his members were strongly urging all of their staff to get vaccinated, but not requiring it yet. 

Louisiana is in the middle of its fourth surge of COVID-19 driven by the delta variant — a surge that has been more dire than previous ones. Louisiana hit an all-time high point for COVID-19 hospitalizations Wednesday. In one region of the state, fewer than 10 intensive care unit hospital beds are open.


State officials have taken some solace that nursing home residents — who are vaccinated at more than double the rate of the general population — have not been hit as hard by this surge as they were during the previous ones. 

Around 90 percent of Louisiana residents who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 this month — and over 80 percent of those who have died from COVID-19 during the period — were not vaccinated.

Yet COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents could be rising. The health department reported 14 COVID-19 deaths from nursing homes this week, compared to just five reported last week. The weekly death counts can include any COVID-19 case from the two months prior, but for many weeks this summer, nursing homes reported no deaths from COVID-19, according to state data.

The low rate of vaccination among nursing home staff has been a worry for senior citizen advocates. The number of COVID-19 cases among staff appears to be going up in Louisiana — from 256 last week to 324 this week.

“AARP is calling on nursing homes to require vaccinations for staff, residents and visitors. We feel that the low levels of staff vaccination create an unacceptable level of risk, since it’s been very clear that this disease spreads so easily in these congregate environments,” said Andrew Muhl, director of advocacy for AARP Louisiana, in a written statement prior to Biden’s announcement.


Louisiana State Health Officer Joe Kanter suggested that nursing home staff who are not vaccinated could pose a big threat to nursing home residents. 

“You’re going to have some transmission. Oftentimes it comes from nursing home staff. And whenever COVID is introduced in a high-risk congregate setting like that, it will spread, particularly when we’re in the middle of a giant surge,” Kanter said during a press conference last week.

Data released by the Louisiana health agency Aug. 18 shows wildly varying staff vaccination numbers across the state. 

Only one nursing home in the state has a 100% staff vaccination rate, Eunice Manor in St. Landry. The lowest recorded staff vaccination rate is at Magnolia Estates in Lafayette, which is currently at 13 percent. 

The facilities are doing better with vaccinating their patients. Six nursing homes statewide have a resident vaccination rate of 100%. Those include: Lafon Nursing Facility of the Holy Family, Poydras Home, St. Anna’s at Lambeth House, St. James Place Retirement Community, Terrebonne General Medical Center and Villa Feliciana Chronic Disease Hospital and Rehab. 

Eunice Manor Nursing Home Administrator Danielle “Nickie” Toups said strong leadership was the key to gaining full vaccination at her facility. At Eunice Manor, all of the staff, around 80 people, have been fully vaccinated since March, according to Toups. 

Toups accomplished this by having daily staff meetings, emphasizing the importance of protecting their vulnerable residents. 

“Every single morning for a solid 11 months, I had a morning meeting with my entire staff and talked about risk versus benefits,” Toups said. “We talked about facts versus myths, we talked about preventive measures, we talked about signs and systems, we talked about what we were going to do to be prepared if COVID gets into our building.”

All 81 residents at the nursing home have either initiated or completed a vaccine series as well. Toups said the last vaccination occurred in the last two weeks. She had trouble with two of the residents’ families, who didn’t want them to be vaccinated, but one resident managed to convince their family that vaccination was the best option. 

The other resident’s family recently got very sick with COVID-19 and asked that the resident be given the shot, Toups said. The facility hasn’t had a case of COVID-19 since November, according to Toups. 

“I keep a very tight door here,” Toups said.

Louisiana’s five state-run veterans homes — which operate similarly to nursing homes — have higher vaccination rates among both staff and residents than the privately-run facilities. Vaccination rates at the veterans homes are currently at 96 percent among residents and 63 percent among staff members.

 

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

Rachel Mipro has previous experience at WBRZ and The Reveille and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Louisiana State University. At LSU, she worked as an opinion editor for The Reveille and as a nonfiction editor for the university’s creative writing journal. In her free time, she enjoys baking, Netflix and hiking.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Louisiana Illuminator. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

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