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December Proved To Be Deadliest Month For Residents In Long-Term Care

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The last week of December was the deadliest yet for people in nursing homes with more than 6,400 deaths. More than a third of all COVID-19 deaths are now linked to long-term care. Coronavirus vaccines are reaching more and more facilities, but many worry they won't come soon enough to stave off a lot more deaths. Will Stone reports.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Terry Robertson had no interest in waiting until the second week of January to start vaccinating the residents and staff of the long-term care community he runs north of Seattle.

TERRY ROBERTSON: We got notice from CVS that January 9 was our first date, and I said, that doesn't work.

STONE: So Robertson switched to another pharmacy, one that was able to bring the first doses to Josephine Caring Community much sooner, just a few days after Christmas.

ROBERTSON: You know, just pinch me. Am I dreaming? Is the nightmare over? I'm just like, wow, this thing could really be over.

STONE: In the late fall, the coronavirus was rampant in this northwest corner of Washington state. Eventually, it got a foothold at Josephine.

ROBERTSON: We had residents - just had so many test positive. And we're doing everything we can.

STONE: By early December, more than 170 people had been infected. Some died. And it's the same story in nursing homes and assisted living communities in dozens of states.

TAMARA KONETZKA: Unfortunately, even though we've been at this for so many months, not that much has changed.

STONE: That's Tamara Konetzka, a professor who studies long-term care at the University of Chicago. She says the research is clear. Even the best-run nursing homes are not impervious to outbreaks when there's a reservoir of disease in the surrounding city or town.

KONETZKA: All along, it's just been delusional that we could have these areas with high community spread and somehow protect long-term care residents. It just doesn't work.

STONE: Staff come and go. Some work at multiple places. And residents move in and out too. The vaccine is a key turning point, but Konetzka says it's not a magic bullet.

KONETZKA: I think it'll dramatically reduce the number of deaths that we see. But will it eliminate the problem? Not yet.

STONE: There will need to be multiple rounds of vaccination to deal with the churn of staff and residents. In Pennsylvania and many states, at least half of all COVID deaths are linked to long-term care. Zach Shamberg leads an industry group in the state. He says nursing homes, which have struggled to get PPE, remain desperate.

ZACH SHAMBERG: Since Day One of the pandemic, we have fought for one thing, and that's prioritization. And it's no different now than it was 10 or 11 months ago.

STONE: Some of Shamberg's members aren't scheduled to get the vaccine until late January or even early February. Elaine Ryan with AARP says there just hasn't been enough transparency about nursing home outbreaks and now vaccines.

ELAINE RYAN: It is an American tragedy. It's a national disaster. It's not that we don't know how. There is a lack of accountability.

STONE: Some states, including West Virginia and Connecticut, are doing well with vaccinating, so says Mark Parkinson with the American Health Care Association.

MARK PARKINSON: Every week that the vaccine is delayed in long-term care facilities will mean at least an additional 4- to 6,000 deaths, so there's just no excuse for any governor not making this an incredible priority.

STONE: But so far, he thinks the U.S. is on track to meet the goal of getting every facility its second dose by March.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.