Hundreds of COVID-19 deaths reported in congregate care facilities amid vaccination efforts

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Congregate-care facilities remain hotbeds for COVID-19 with a third of North Carolina's 2,409 deaths this month connected to the facilities.

As COVID-19 deaths accelerate across the state, more than 260 residents in these settings have died in the past week.

Throughout the pandemic, nursing homes and prisons across the country have experienced massive outbreaks because of the lack of social distancing possible.

"Many providers despite their efforts had outbreaks in their communities and still continue to have outbreaks in their communities and it gets tiring after a time," explained Jeff Horton, the executive director of the North Carolina Senior Living Association. "Donning and dosing personal protective equipment, screening everybody every day. I think there is some burn out there."

North Carolina has 59,000 cases and 4,170 deaths connected to these facilities.

The federal government and state governments prioritized these setting because of their high-risk, but a month into vaccination efforts in North Carolina, new outbreaks are still reported daily.

CVS and Walgreens began administering COVID-19 vaccines in nursing homes and long-term care facilities at the end of December. Horton estimated about 70% of the state's facilities are a part of this program; the rest receive vaccines from local health departments.

"Overall, I think the rollout of the vaccine in nursing homes here in North Carolina is going well, not to say it's done or that there haven't been hiccups along the way," said Adam Sholar, the president of the NC Health Care Facilities Association.

Sholar's not-for-profit group represents 390 of the state's 425 nursing homes.

He said there were some expected issues the first week including time to thaw the vaccine and paperwork complications.

"I know there are some facilities that have had difficulty getting their clinic scheduled; it's a small number but certainly for those facilities and for the residents and staff in those facilities, it's been pretty frustrating to get that done," he said.

Sholar explained that active outbreaks at some facilities led to some clinics having to get postponed to a time when more residents could receive the vaccine.

CVS reported it has completed its first clinic at about 900 facilities across North Carolina.

Meanwhile, Walgreens data shows as of January 18, 98% of its nursing homes have received the first shot and 68% of the assisted-living facilities.

This week, the North Carolina health department began releasing data on vaccine doses tied with the federal program. The latest numbers show about half of the first doses the state received have been administered. The percent of second doses administered is far lower at just 3%.

Both the Pzifer and Moderna vaccine require two doses to be effective, so the latest state data shows many of these residents are still vulnerable to the virus.

With 90 more people reported dying in congregate care just in the last day, every minute matters.

However, administering doses is just one piece of the puzzle.

"Vaccine hesitancy is an issue. We are seeing at this point about 81% of residents are accepting the vaccine, which is wonderful. We're seeing about 55% or 56% of staff accepting the vaccine, which is good, needs to improve," Sholar said.

Horton also is hearing about this issue and said it is the No. 1 challenge right now.

"I mean, that's a real issue, because your staff are the ones who help take care of your residents. If they are not getting vaccinated then they can get infected and they can't work. That's a real problem, and I think it's something that every provider faces," Horton said.

Overall, Horton and Sholar remain optimistic about the vaccine effort in nursing and long-term care facilities.

"2020 was an incredibly difficult year for all long-term care settings including skilled-nursing facilities, nursing homes, so that we are nine, 10 months later talking about the rollout of a vaccine is incredibly wonderful and gives a lot of hope that we will start to turn the corner on this pandemic," Sholar said.

Sholar said he is hopeful that a majority of the second doses can be administered by mid-February and the number of COVID-19 cases will begin to go down.
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