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Nursing Home Residents Have Mostly Received COVID-19 Vaccines, But What's Next?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than a third of U.S. COVID-19 deaths have been among long-term care residents, which is why facilities like nursing homes have been at the top of the vaccination list. And by now, most have had access to the shots. But as Sarah Boden of member station WESA in Pittsburgh reports, life is slow to get back to normal for people living in long-term care.

SARAH BODEN, BYLINE: The past year has been boring for 88-year-old Jan McGrath. The retired nurse lives with her husband Bill at Westminster Place, a licensed personal care home near Pittsburgh. McGrath says she spends a lot of time reading, mostly Westerns and mystery novels. And she watches some TV.

JAN MCGRATH: I like Hallmark because when you watch Hallmark, you don't have to think.

BODEN: Which is kind of nice for McGrath. She finds the news depressing and misses her family. Both McGrath and her husband have been vaccinated, but she says life at her facility hasn't changed much, which is frustrating.

MCGRATH: We still have our trays delivered to our apartments. We can go out in the hallway, but we have masks on and, of course, social distancing.

BODEN: Long-term care deaths are dropping, and data suggests this is due to vaccinations. As a result, federal guidelines have been relaxed. For example, a vaccinated nursing home resident can now hug a visitor, provided they both wear masks. More specific rules vary state to state. Still, when deciding what's safe, a facility must take the health of every resident into account. And a lot of people within these settings have not been vaccinated.

DAVID NACE: That's what keeps me up at night.

BODEN: Dr. David Nace is the president of the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine.

NACE: With each week passing, the number of new residents coming into long-term care is going up.

BODEN: New people move in, many temporarily for rehabilitation after a medical event. Nace says a system needs to be created to get these people vaccinated.

NACE: We don't have that right now.

BODEN: And transporting a resident to a pharmacy or clinic for vaccination can be logistically rough.

NACE: When you have individuals in long-term care, especially in the skilled nursing side of things who are debilitated - and putting somebody in an ambulance, that's not an optimal solution to this problem.

BODEN: Unvaccinated staff are also a problem. Employees have been hired after a facility inoculated staff and can't find appointments elsewhere. Others are still refusing to get the shot. Unvaccinated workers are more likely to carry in the virus from outside, and the greater the level of community spread, the higher the risk, says Courtney Bishnoi of the American Health Care Association. But she thinks it is time to find a new balance that allows residents greater freedoms.

COURTNEY BISHNOI: Such as vaccinated residents being able to commune together, have increased activities maybe without the social distancing but with masking still.

BODEN: And that seems to be happening for Jan McGrath. This month, she attended a physically distanced fish fry. Perhaps the summer, after more people have gotten their jabs, McGrath will be able to gather with her eight children, 26 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

MCGRATH: Seeing them would be the greatest thing. I miss hugs the most.

BODEN: Until then, McGrath will make do with Zoom calls and mystery novels. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Boden in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID PRITCHARD'S "EVANESCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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