Bennet, Casey, Wyden, Kelly Seek Assurances on Federal COVID-19 Response in Nursing Homes as Omicron Spreads

Recent Reporting Suggests the Pace of Administering Booster Shots and Second Primary Vaccines In Nursing Homes May Be Putting Residents At Risk

Denver – In the face of surging Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Bob Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) sent a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra seeking information on the agency’s steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among nursing home residents and workers. Recent reporting highlights concerns about the administration of booster shots and second primary doses to nursing home residents and workers.

“We are concerned that just 55 percent of fully vaccinated nursing home residents nationally have received additional primary or booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines as of December 12, 2021,” wrote Bennet and the senators. “Worker uptake of additional primary and booster vaccine doses is even lower at 23 percent nationally… Racial disparities in vaccination rates also must continue to be addressed. Research has shown that people of color are more likely to live in nursing homes with low vaccination rates, while Black and Hispanic people in the general population make up a disproportionately small share of booster dose recipients.”

The letter asks HHS to provide information on its steps to ensure vaccinations and booster shots are readily accessible in all nursing homes, including those in rural areas where vaccine uptake is often lower than the national average. Bennet and the senators are also seeking information about any supply chain issues, staffing shortages or other obstacles the Biden Administration has observed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance that all adults receive booster doses to better protect themselves against COVID-19, including the highly infectious omicron and delta variants.

More than 200,000 people living and working in long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.  

The text of the letter is available HERE and below.

Dear Secretary Becerra:

As our Nation confronts worrying news about the omicron variant of COVID-19, a strain which appears to be even more transmissible than the highly contagious delta variant, we write seeking information about the Biden administration’s efforts to protect nursing home residents and workers against another surge of this virus. Recent news reports have highlighted concerns about the pace of administering booster shots and additional primary vaccine doses to nursing home residents and workers. Given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidance that all adults receive these shots to better protect themselves against COVID-19, we seek assurances that the Biden administration is doing everything in its power to provide nursing homes ready access to these safe and effective preventive measures.

In response to our requests dating back to early 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been collecting and publishing data that provide the public with transparent information about the effect of COVID-19 in nursing homes participating in Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the pace of vaccinating residents and workers. These data make clear that additional primary and booster doses are an important tool in protecting nursing home residents and workers from COVID-19 infections. Fully vaccinated nursing home residents (i.e. one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines) have lower rates of COVID-19 infections than unvaccinated residents, while residents who receive additional primary or booster doses of a COVID-19 vaccine have significantly lower rates of infection. 

We are concerned that just 55 percent of fully vaccinated nursing home residents nationally have received additional primary or booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines as of December 12, 2021. Worker uptake of additional primary and booster doses is even lower at 23 percent nationally. Of further concern, in some states, these figures are significantly lower. Racial disparities in vaccination rates also must continue to be addressed. Research has shown that people of color are more likely to live in nursing homes with low vaccination rates, while Black and Hispanic people in the general population make up a disproportionately small share of booster dose recipients.

While work remains to be done, as 2021 comes to a close, it is important to note that our Nation has come a long way in its fight against COVID-19, particularly in nursing homes. This progress is a testament to HHS’s efforts to prioritize vaccinating nursing home residents and workers, which was imperative given that COVID-19 deaths in these and other long-term care settings accounted for nearly a third of deaths during the pandemic’s first year. To date, 87 percent of nursing home residents and 77 percent of nursing home workers across our Nation are vaccinated according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. 

Moreover, as vaccination rates have increased, COVID-19 deaths have plummeted. During the weeks from Thanksgiving 2020 to the first week of January 2021, more than 5,600 nursing home residents were dying weekly from COVID-19, an annualized rate of nearly 300,000 deaths. By contrast, for the six weeks ending on December 5, 2021, the rate of COVID-19 deaths had fallen to an average of about 425 per week. We know the Biden administration shares our goals to expeditiously drive up vaccinations and booster shots, while substantially driving down infections and deaths.

Given the need for additional primary and booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine among nursing home residents and workers, we are seeking information about the steps the Biden administration is taking to increase these rates. Therefore, please provide us the following information no later than January 19, 2022:

  1. What are the Biden administration’s goals and associated timelines for rates of primary and booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine among nursing home residents and workers in 2022?  What steps is the Biden administration taking to ensure that nursing home residents and workers have access to booster shots? 
  2. Researchers have shown that people of color are more likely to live in nursing homes that have low primary vaccination rates, and have had a disproportionately low uptake of booster doses in the general population. What steps is the Biden administration taking to ensure that rates of primary and booster doses are equitable in nursing homes, and that communities of color and other populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic will have ready access to these vaccines?
  3. How is the Biden administration seeking to increase primary vaccination rates and booster doses in nursing homes located in rural areas where uptake has tended to be relatively low? 
  4. Please provide information about any supply chain issues, staffing shortages, or other obstacles that the Biden administration has observed as it relates to facilities obtaining or administering additional primary or booster doses. To the extent such problems exist, how is the administration addressing them?
  5. Please outline the steps that HHS is taking to ensure that residents, workers, their families and the public have an accurate and timely view of the pace that additional primary and booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines are being administered in nursing homes.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.