The original COVID-19 vaccines have not protected U.S. nursing home residents from infection and death since the omicron wave began more than a year ago, a new study finds.
Two University of Chicago researchers published the study Thursday in JAMA Network Open. It examined 15,042 nursing homes that reported COVID data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from May 30, 2021, to Jan. 30.
They found staff and residents in nursing homes with 10% higher staff vaccination rates stopped having lower COVID infection and death rates after the omicron strain hit in late 2021. The CDC-recommended dosage — two shots of the Pfizer product, two shots from Moderna or one shot from Johnson & Johnson — continued to make no difference throughout January of this year.
“Under the omicron variants, the mandated initial regimen no longer constitutes appropriately sufficient vaccination,” lead researcher Soham Sinha, a member of the University of Chicago’s Department of Public Health Sciences, told The Washington Times. “It’s not that the vaccines stopped working but that what we think of and mandate as sufficient vaccination needs to evolve along with the disease variants.”
While 86.5% of all nursing home staff have completed the original vaccine regimen, only 22.1% are up to date with booster shots and newer vaccinations, he added in an email.
“Therefore, as infection rates surge, evolving policies in the form of extending mandates for booster doses for staff in nursing homes will be critical to prevent a return to the early days of the pandemic when mounting nursing home deaths seemed almost inevitable,” Mr. Sinha said.
The study did not examine the effect of boosters. But a separate study of nursing home residents, published Dec. 7 in the same journal, found infections and hospitalizations dropped in two large systems that required boosters for staff during the delta and omicron waves.
In an email to The Times, CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund pointed to preliminary estimates the agency released on Dec. 16 showing bivalent booster doses reduced hospitalizations among at-risk Americans older than 65.
“CDC doesn’t typically comment on non-CDC studies, but we did put out data that show that the updated booster doses cut the risk of having to visit an emergency department or urgent care or being hospitalized with COVID-19 by half or more, especially for those who received their last original dose at least eight months ago,” Ms. Nordlund said.
This week’s study found that nursing staff vaccinations significantly mitigated the risk of weekly infections and deaths during the early phase of the pandemic. Mr. Sinha said 20,000 fewer residents would have died in nursing homes had they all increased average staff vaccination rates by 10 percentage points before omicron.
Some medical experts on Thursday praised the study’s findings.
Increasing vaccination and booster rates in nursing homes are “a major unmet need at this stage of the pandemic,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkin Center for Health Security.
“After the appearance of the omicron variant, vaccines can no longer be relied upon to have a measurable impact on transmissibility,” said Dr. Adalja, an infectious disease specialist. “However, the value of vaccines should not be measured in ability to stop infection, but in ability to stop serious illness, hospitalization and death.”
Boosters alone will not protect the elderly from rising COVID infection rates this winter, said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
“We need to be mindful that protecting against severe COVID is not simply a vaccine-only approach, but rather a multifactor implementation that would warrant face masks, hand hygiene and immediate testing with concerns for close contacts and symptoms,” Dr. Galiatsatos said in an email.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.