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Advocates For St. Louis Nursing Home Residents Worry Delta Variant Poses New Threat

Since March, 3,762 nursing home residents in St. Louis County have contracted the coronavirus and 593 have died, accounting for nearly 60% of all COVID-19 deaths countywide.
Nat Thomas
St. Louis Public Radio
Advocates for St. Louis nursing home residents are worried the delta variant of the coronavirus could present new problems for residents, especially for those who can't get vaccinated and as nursing homes deal with staff shortages.

Nursing homes in the St. Louis region are trying to keep their residents and workers safe as the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads across Missouri. The state is seeing 2,000 cases a day, the highest rate since January. The steep rise in cases has doctors and scientists worried, given that only 40.3% of Missouri residents are fully vaccinated.

Advocates for nursing home residents are worried that the fast-spreading variant will endanger the region’s nursing home residents, even though about 81% have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis spoke to Marjorie Moore, executive director of VOYCE, a nonprofit that advocates for nursing home residents about COVID-19 vaccines and a proposed federal bill that would allow residents to have two designated caretakers during a public health emergency.

Chad Davis: COVID-19 has put nursing home residents in a state of isolation. How have homes been adapting to these changes, now that the region is open?

Marjorie Moore: At this point, it seems to be hovering right up above or below 50% of staff members are vaccinated, we are even starting to see some facilities requiring staff to be vaccinated. So that's heartening as well.

Davis: Are residents and staff still getting infected with COVID, and what do those numbers look like?

Moore: We are starting to see more of them. In fact, we got a call on Friday from a cluster, three different facilities in about a two-mile radius that all discovered clusters in their facilities. So, it's starting to happen here. We don't know if it's a delta variant, or which version of COVID-19 it is, we just know that it's COVID back in these facilities, which is a scary thing I think both for residents and nonresidents.

Some of that 20% of residents who are not vaccinated are people who truly medically cannot take this vaccine. There is a small number of people out there in that situation where they have so many other things going on that the vaccine is just too much for their systems. Those are the folks that it's really important for us to protect.

Davis: Have nursing homes done enough to ensure that their workers are vaccinated and putting the safeguards to ensure that residents are protected from the virus?

Moore: Each facility has done different things. I think one of the things that has continued to strain facilities is the fact that a lot of their workforce is part time, low paid, and that means that a lot of their workforce is also still working multiple jobs. And so you have people still going from facility to facility. So there is still that, that danger of the commingling. In addition to that, a lot of the workers that we have are also in groups that are less likely to be vaccinated, and those are their living conditions as well. So that becomes a real challenge.

Most facilities are really trying to do what they can to keep COVID out and I think at this point, a lot of times it isn't so much like can we keep it out but how do we keep it from spreading once it's in. I think there's always going to be an asymptomatic carrier that you're going to have no idea has it, they're not going to have a fever, they're not going to have any symptoms.

But I think one of the biggest challenges in facilities is the staffing shortages, and staffing shortages can lead to difficulties in slowing infection rates overall. And that becomes a real challenge for the facilities. If we don't have enough people to take care of our residents' basic needs, how can we make sure that our residents are safe?

Davis: Should nursing homes require their workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Moore: I'm not a lawyer. But honestly, I think if facilities are able to find enough employees who have the vaccine or are willing to get the vaccine, I think that is far more preferable to have a vaccinated staff than an unvaccinated staff.

Davis: Are you concerned that the delta variant or any other variants could have a shutdown, similar to what we saw in homes last year?

Moore: That's actually a big worry in a lot of ways, and that's why VOYCE is really behind the Essential Caregivers Act, because we really think that it's important that in the event that new rules are put in place where facilities need to shut down again, that residents have access to their loved ones, especially if their loved ones are subject to the same rules and regulations that staff are.

Davis: Let's talk about this proposed federal bill, the Essential Caregivers Act. If passed, what could this mean for homes in the St. Louis area?

Moore: What the Essential Caregivers Act would do is allow each resident to appoint two people to basically be their designated essential caregivers. And what that would mean is that those two people would really have access to that resident, no matter what the public health orders were at any given time. So if there's another big closure due to COVID, or if, during our next pandemic, or whatever happens, a resident will be able to have access to at least two people.

The other great thing that this is going to do for residents, and for facilities quite honestly, is give the facilities a little bit of an extra hand. Maybe [the residents] choose to have a family member, but also maybe another health care worker that comes in. A lot of folks have personal assistants that come in and help with additional tasks during the day. So that takes some stress off the facility staff. We still absolutely think that the facilities need to be fully staffed, but we also know that sometimes the people that love you know how to work with your quirks.

Davis: What do you want health care workers at nursing homes and families of nursing home residents to take away from the delta variant and what's going on with COVID right now?

Moore: I think the thing that we need to take away from this disease, this virus is something that we're going to be fighting for a long time. And I think we need to do all the things that we can to protect ourselves as individuals and ourselves as a community. I think that those of us that are young and healthy, and able to take the vaccine without much problem at all really should because what it really does is it protects our elders, it protects the folks among us that can't take this vaccine.

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.