CUMBERLAND — Some nursing homes in Allegany and Garrett counties made the state’s list for the fewest employees to get a COVID-19 vaccination.
The Maryland Department of Health recently announced the “top 10 and bottom 10” nursing home facilities in the state ranked by percentage of staff with at least one dose of a vaccine against COVID-19 and its highly contagious variants.
MDH also announced 26 nursing home facilities in the state that did not submit the recent weekly required staff COVID-19 vaccination data.
“Maryland’s older adults utilize the services of nursing homes not only for long-term care, but often for rehabilitation care,” Maryland Department of Aging Secretary Rona E. Kramer said via press release. “If the public doesn’t have confidence that nursing home or long-term care staff are vaccinated, their choices for care support will be limited. Our older adults deserve to be comfortable accessing all of their care options, including the full array of services that Maryland’s nursing homes provide.”
According to the report, of skilled nursing home and congregate facilities in Maryland, Cumberland Healthcare Center and Sterling Care at Frostburg Village had the lowest rates of vaccinated employees at 41% and 44% respectively.
CommuniCare Family of Companies, which owns Cumberland Healthcare Center, did not respond to a Cumberland Times-News request for comment.
CommuniCare also owns Kensington Healthcare Center in Montgomery County — which led the “top” list at 100% of employees vaccinated, as well as five other facilities that did not submit data.
Sterling Care also did not respond to a request for comments.
Also making the “bottom” list were Garrett County’s Dennett Road Manor at 46%, and Oakland Nursing and Rehabilitation Center at 51%.
Liz Goldsborough, administrator at Dennett Road Manor, said the facility does not require its workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“It’s not mandated,” she said. “It’s up to them.”
However, the facility provides education on the benefits of the vaccine, and encourages staffers to be inoculated, she said.
“We’re trying,” Goldsborough said.
Many workers believe disinformation and rumors such as the vaccine is a “hoax” or “experimental,” she said and added she’s optimistic those inaccurate views will change with time.
Goldsborough said she is fully vaccinated.
“I got the Pfizer,” she said.
Oakland Nursing and Rehabilitation Center Administrator Sheila Jones-Marino declined to be interviewed about the MDH list but provided a statement.
“We have followed our federal, state and local health officials’ guidance and immediately implemented rigorous infection control and prevention protocols, increased our deep cleaning efforts, and limited visitation and allowed only essential personnel in the facility,” she wrote.
“Over the past year and a half our staff has done a tremendous job of maintaining the highest standards in infection control and I am proud to say that, to date, we have only had a total of 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facility, none of which resulted in COVID-19 related deaths, and we currently have no confirmed cases of COVID-19,” Jones-Marino said.
“And while we have highly encouraged our staff to receive vaccinations, which included a vaccination incentive program, we have chosen not to make vaccinations mandatory at this time,” she said. “We ... will continue to closely follow the developments and guidance from our federal, state and local health officials relating to mandatory vaccine distributions because, as always, our goal is to do what is necessary to keep our residents and staff safe and healthy.”
Maryland “strongly recommends” that all eligible residents “get a life-saving COVID-19 shot,” MDH Deputy Director of Media Relations Charlie Gischlar said via email.
However, the state has not issued any COVID-19 vaccine mandates, he said.
Each employer, including medical, health care facilities, and providers, has the flexibility to require vaccines for staff.
“We thank those healthcare employers, including large hospital systems, that have taken steps to protect their patients by requiring employee COVID-19 vaccinations and encourage others to follow their example,” Gischlar said.
“At this time, the vast majority of individuals who contract COVID-19, are hospitalized, or have died are unvaccinated,” he said. “Any eligible Marylander can and should receive a life-saving COVID-19 vaccine at this time.”
As of Tuesday, Maryland detected 266 delta variant cases across the state, Gischlar said.
On behalf of the Human Resources Development Commission of Allegany County, Executive Director Wendolyn McKenzie issued a statement in response to the MDH report.
“Under the guidance of the Maryland Department of Aging and in response to the growing concern for the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable residents, Allegany County HRDC, the lead area agency on aging, made the decision early summer to open its doors to in-person participation for those who have been fully vaccinated,” it read. “Social isolation and depression, significantly heightened during and as a result of COVID had already been identified as an area of concern to be addressed amongst the aged and disabled residents.”
Through a collaborative process, HRDC assisted the local health department with scheduling appointments and providing transportation as needed to ensure COVID-19 vaccinations were available to residents of Allegany County, the statement read.
Avoid another ‘tragedy’
Given that the virus killed more than 184,000 residents and staff members at nursing homes across the country, the vaccine is critical to prevent more deaths at such facilities, Hank Greenberg, state director for AARP Maryland, said.
“We believe that this is a national tragedy that should not be repeated,” he told the Cumberland Times-News Wednesday.
The group, which focuses on issues that affect people age 50 and older, also advocates for greater transparency in reporting data on COVID-19 vaccination rates in nursing homes.
The AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created a dashboard on the AARP website that provides monthly reports on the virus’ impact on nursing home residents and staff.
On Wednesday, the site showed that in the four weeks prior to June 20, 44.3% of Maryland nursing homes had at least 75% of staff members vaccinated. By comparison, Pennsylvania’s rate was 15.5%, and West Virginia’s was 24.4%.
Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein is associate dean for public health practice and training, and professor of the practice in health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
He also served as secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene from January 2011 to December 2014.
Workers who are unvaccinated can pass COVID-19 unwittingly to nursing home residents, leading to outbreaks of severe illness and death,” he said via email Wednesday.
“Vaccination also protects workers themselves from severe illness and death,” Sharfstein said.
Older adults in nursing homes risk getting COVID-19 when unvaccinated people enter places where they live.
“This risk is much lower for vaccinated nursing home residents, but even for those who are vaccinated, the risk is not zero,” he said. “There have been outbreaks involving both unvaccinated and vaccinated residents as a result of unvaccinated staff bringing the virus into the facility.”
The delta variant is more contagious, especially for people who are not vaccinated, Sharfstein said.
“Because of the delta variant, it’s more likely that an unvaccinated worker will get infected and expose people at the nursing home,” he said.
“People who work in nursing homes should be vaccinated to protect the people they care for at work, to protect themselves, and to protect their own friends and families,” Sharfstein said.
LeadingAge is an association of nonprofit providers of aging services including nursing homes.
On Monday, the organization’s national branch issued a statement saying it joined a “national call for long-term care providers to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for all” staff and care professionals.
“Care providers have been working around the clock to steadily increase the number of residents and staff who are vaccinated, and COVID deaths have plummeted, but it’s time to do more,” Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge, said in the statement.
“As COVID-19 variants emerge and proliferate, we can start saving more lives today by ensuring staff are fully vaccinated,” she said. “The association encouraged members to make vaccines a condition of employment for all healthcare workers, including employees, contract staff and others, with appropriate exemptions for those with medical reasons or as specified by federal or state law.”
The statement emphasized that the vaccines have proven to be safe and effective in preventing infection, reducing the spread of the virus and the chance of serious illness or death.
“Throughout the pandemic, long-term care providers have demonstrated their dedication, commitment and bravery in the face of deadly challenges never faced before,” Sloan said. “By mandating these highly effective vaccines, they will be doing everything possible to deliver safe, quality care to the older adults and others they serve.”
According to a recent report from The Washington Post, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs one of the nation’s largest health systems, “announced Monday it would mandate coronavirus vaccines for its front-line workers, becoming the first federal agency to do so and signaling what some experts said could be a national pivot to such requirements.”
Faced with the explosive growth of a new virus variant, California and New York City gave workers a choice to get vaccinated or face weekly testing, the Post reported.
“And an array of hospitals from coast to coast, including the prestigious Mayo Clinic, declared they would require staff to get vaccinated, following a joint plea from the nation’s major medical groups.”
State, local cases
The Maryland Department of Health on Wednesday reported 416 new COVID-19 cases, three additional deaths and 19 more hospitalizations across the state in the past 24 hours.
The statewide daily COVID-19 case rate steadily increased from 0.57% July 1 to 2.45% Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, Allegany County was at 1.52%, Garrett County at 5.12% and Washington County at 2.59%.
The seven-day moving average case rate per 100,000 people was 5.19 statewide, 2.84 in Allegany County, 5.42 in Garrett County and 4.07 in Washington County.
Covid Act Now, an independent, 5013 nonprofit, provides COVID-19 data and analysis for communities across the U.S.
According to its website Wednesday, risk levels for the disease were “very high” in Garrett County, “medium” in Allegany County, and “high” in Washington County.
Local facilities impacted
The virus also affected other local congregate facilities.
The MDH coronavirus website for the week beginning Wednesday reported 170 COVID-19 cases among staff, and three inmate deaths at North Branch Correctional Institution.
Western Correctional Institution showed no cases among staff but seven inmate deaths.
The website listed four COVID-19 cases in workers at the Subacute Rehabilitation Unit at Garrett Regional Medical Center.
Backbone Mountain Youth Center showed 20 staff cases.
Williamsport Retirement Village in Washington County data included 83 staff cases, 94 resident cases and 21 resident deaths.
Vaccinations and boosters
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday reported 77% of Marylanders age 18 and older had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which roughly doubled the rates for each of Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties.
Allegany and Garrett County Health Departments Medical Deputy Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Corder said vaccination of the organization’s employees is not required.
“I have no information or whether in the future that might change,” she said via email.
COVID-19 delta variants are identified in specialty labs that work with the MDH and require roughly two weeks to sequence RNA genes.
“Delta variants are certainly undercounted,” Corder said. “When we learn of a new delta case, it is already weeks old, and further transmission could already have occurred. The vast majority of new cases are not sequenced at all, and we can expect the delta variant is increasing in prevalence in our area as time goes on.”
Vaccination substantially reduces hospitalizations and virtually eliminates death from COVID-19, she said.
“Vaccination is the best way we have to prevent further transmission and greatly reduces symptomatic infections,” Corder said.
Garrett County Health Department Public Information Officer Diane Lee also said there’s no vaccination mandate for the organization’s workers.
“The Garrett County Health Department staff are employees of the State of Maryland,” she said via email. “The state highly recommends that staff receive COVID-19 vaccinations, but does not require it.”
During its Second Quarter 2021 Earnings Teleconference Wednesday, a Pfizer presentation showed that emergence of the COVID-19 delta variant and associated “rapidly increasing infections” represents roughly 83% of sequenced cases in the U.S.
According to the report, a third dose of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine can significantly boost protection against the delta variant.
The need for a booster would be determined by regulators, and likely introduced first to older adults and immunocompromised people.
Pfizer could submit data for a proposed third dose of its vaccine to the Food and Drug Administration as early as next month.
According to The Associated Press, Pfizer expects to apply in September for FDA authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine in children ages 5 through 11.
“Results for two younger age groups that began testing a little later should be available by October or November, according to the company,” the AP recently reported. “Moderna said Monday it expects to have enough data to apply for FDA authorization in younger kids by late this year or early 2022.”