Florida ranks among the worst states for COVID vaccinations in nursing homes, AARP reports

Nikki Ross
The Daytona Beach News-Journal
Vaccination rates among nursing home staff members for the United States.

Florida ranks 49th in the country for nursing home employees vaccinated against COVID-19 and 48th for vaccinated residents, the AARP reported Monday, statistics that are causing concern for advocates.

Just 42% of the state's nursing home workers have been vaccinated against coronavirus, according to AARP’s latest update, which includes data from May 16 to June 20. Florida is ahead of only Louisiana, which reported just over 41% of vaccinated nursing home employees. 

The nationwide average for nursing home staff vaccination is just over 56%, according to AARP’s COVID-19 dashboard. This statistic is one of two new components added to the dashboard Monday, which will track nursing homes resident and staff vaccination rates.

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Jeff Johnson, AARP Florida state director, said health-care workers in nursing homes have direct access to the state’s most vulnerable citizens. If these workers remain unvaccinated, he said the virus will continue to spread in nursing homes, endangering the lives of all involved. 

“It’s troubling news that Florida continues to lag significantly behind the nation in the percent of fully vaccinated health care workers in our nursing homes,” said Johnson in a press release. “Florida now accounts for one in five new U.S. cases of COVID. With cases once again rising across the country and considering the highly contagious Delta variant, every effort must be made to protect vulnerable nursing home residents.” 

Brian Lee, director of Families for Better Care which advocates for residents of long-term care facilities, said Florida is heading toward a “repeat disaster” when it comes to COVID-19 cases in nursing homes —  all because staff members are choosing not to get vaccinated. 

“They [nursing homes] are still the place where it’s ground zero for the spread of COVID,” Lee said. 

The national average for vaccinated nursing home residents is 78.3%, according to AARP.

In Florida, 68.1% of nursing home residents are vaccinated, AARP reported, ahead of only Nevada with 65.8% and Arizona with 63.3%. 

“AARP encourages residents and staff in long-term care facilities to get a free COVID vaccine to protect yourself, your family and your community,” Johnson said in the press release. “Let me be clear: Now is the time for Florida to do whatever it takes to ensure long-term care workers and residents are fully vaccinated if we are going to end this deadly pandemic.”

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81-year-old John Voll during a Fourth of July drive-by parade at his nursing home in New Smyrna Beach.

COVID-19 in Florida nursing homes

While Florida's vaccination rates have caused concern, both COVID cases and deaths in the state’s nursing homes decreased during the four-week period of May 16 to June 20, according to AARP’s dashboard. 

Using data released by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — which is self-reported by nursing homes — the AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard to provide four-week snapshots of the virus' impact on nursing home residents and staff. 

The federal data does not include coronavirus cases among residents or staff of assisted-living facilities, group homes and other congregate elder-care facilities.

From May 16 to June 20, staff cases in Florida decreased from 48% to 26% — still twice the national average of 13%. 

Resident COVID-19 cases dropped from 19% to 11%, which is also twice the national average of 5%, according to AARP. 

And 21% of Florida’s nursing homes continue to suffer from staffing shortages.

The data, which comes directly from CMS, is two weeks behind and doesn’t give a current picture, according to Lee.

“There is a lag time — recent CMS data is two weeks behind,” Lee said. “There could have been a major outbreak happening last month and we are just now aware of it.”

The Agency for Healthcare Administration, which oversees Florida’s nursing homes, stopped reporting daily COVID-related data on June 5, instead relying on federal agencies like CMS to track the data, which is supplied directly by the facilities.

On Friday, Lee sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking the state to resume daily tracking of COVID-19 cases and deaths in long-term care facilities. 

“Families for Better Care was puzzled by your decision to shut down the collection and public dissemination of COVID-19 case infection and death data for Florida’s long-term care facilities,” the letter stated. “We contend that this decision may have been premature and runs against the grain of your 'seniors first' promise to Florida’s elderly.”

Lee argued that failure to collect, analyze and publish this data leaves families in the dark and is harmful to the current administration. 

“Your communications team informed us by email on June 23, 2021, that state regulators are now relying on 'pre-pandemic regulatory activities' to ascertain this data,” the letter states. “Routine inspections are inadequate when attempting to promptly surveil COVID-19 outbreaks in facilities, especially when inspection frequency is as low as once every two years for assisted living facilities and once every nine to 15 months for nursing homes.”

As of 2 p.m. Monday, Lee had not received a response from DeSantis’ office.