WASHINGTON – Nursing homes have to publicly disclose their vaccination rates for flu and pneumonia but there’s no similar mandate for COVID-19 shots, even though the steepest toll from the virus has been among residents of long-term care facilities.
Now lawmakers of both parties are urging the Biden administration to require disclosure of coronavirus vaccination rates for residents and staff, and to make it easy for family members, advocacy groups and researchers to access such potentially critical details.
“The continued absence of publicly available COVID-19 vaccination information at the facility level leaves residents, workers, and their families in the dark, makes it impossible to fully evaluate the effect of these vaccines, and hinders efforts to ensure equitable vaccine access for communities of color,” Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, write in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
The request comes as consumer advocates say it remains exceedingly difficult for family members to get coronavirus information from Medicare on individual nursing homes, either through the program's COVID-19 Nursing Home Data website, or its regular Care Compare site.
“It continues to be so problematic,” said Sam Brooks, project manager for Consumer Voice, a national advocacy group for improving quality in long-term care. “It's just daunting.”
Brooks said he was using Medicare's nursing home COVID-19 site recently, put in a facility's name, and a popular chain restaurant came up. A joint search Wednesday with a reporter turned up an animal hospital, after entering the name of a nursing home and the community it was located in.
Nursing homes have been required since last May to regularly report cases and deaths among residents and staff to the government. While aggregate numbers are easy to find online, data on individual facilities is not.
The coronavirus pandemic hit hardest among nursing home residents. Although only about 1% of the U.S. population lives in long-term care facilities, they accounted for about one-third of COVID-19 deaths as of early March, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Now deaths have plummeted as more than 2 million residents and 1.5 million staff have received at least one vaccine dose. Nursing homes are again allowing loved ones to visit, and hugs are included.
But there's evidence Americans have grown wary. A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research last year found that 60% percent would be very concerned if an aging friend or family member needed long-term care in a nursing home during the pandemic, and another 27% would be moderately concerned.
Wyden chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare and Medicaid, and Crapo is the ranking Republican. Joining their request to the Biden administration are their counterparts on the Special Committee on Aging, Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Tim Scott, R-S.C. Medicare and Medicaid pay most of the nation's bill for nursing home care and set standards.
The main nursing home industry trade group, the American Health Care Association, says it supports disclosure of vaccination data. So does LeadingAge, an association representing nonprofit facilities. But working out the details could be tricky. It's one thing to deliver data to the government, or to tech-savvy researchers, and another thing to translate it so it's readily available to families.
“We believe that accessible, timely and credible information about operations and care practices is a must to establishing a trusting and productive relationship between nursing homes, care providers, residents and families,” LeadingAge spokeswoman Lisa Sanders said in a statement.
There was no immediate response from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Wyden and Crapo said current government policy that encourages nursing homes to voluntarily report vaccination data to the government has only led to “limited participation by the industry.”
The government should require nursing homes to break down vaccination data by race and ethnicity, given disparities in vaccine acceptance.
Reports that many nursing home workers have been reluctant to get vaccinated raise additional concerns, the lawmakers added. Researchers believe that one of the main routes the virus gets into facilities is through workers who unwittingly bring it in from the community. Because of high staff turnover in the low-wage industry, it's possible that vaccination rates among staff at individual facilities may actually fall with time.
“Such concerns underscore the urgency of moving forward with the collection of COVID-19 vaccine information, and publishing these data as soon as possible,” wrote Wyden and Crapo.