New COVID-19 cases plummet at Louisiana’s nursing homes

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Louisiana’s nursing homes, once the deadly epicenters of the state’s coronavirus outbreak, have seen new cases of COVID-19 plummet at their facilities this year as most of the facilities’ residents have gotten vaccinated.

The Advocate reports that nursing homes had just 17 new coronavirus disease cases among residents in the last weekly update. It’s the seventh week in which Louisiana’s approximately 275 nursing homes reported fewer than 30 new cases, according to state data.

In a significant milestone for facilities where the virus claimed nearly 3,000 lives, new cases in nursing homes have dropped to the lowest levels of the pandemic. The downturn has come even as the homes opened to visitors and hosted activities.

“The fact that we’re not seeing a lot of nursing home residents infected … is an indication of that little bubble reaching basically herd immunity,” said Tulane University infectious disease expert Susan Hassig. “Seeing that very specific environment is what we’re hoping to see at the broader community level.”

The decline began in late December and January, when the first vaccine doses were rolled out to long-term care facilities. The drop accelerated once second doses began in late January and then declined further after many homes began hosting vaccination events to catch stragglers.

The state health department said more than 80% of nursing home residents have gotten vaccinated, though interest in the vaccine is far lower in the staff that works in the facilities.

No nursing homes have reported double-digit outbreaks since early March.

Inside the facilities, the change from a year ago is palpable and “closer to normal,” said Lisa Gardner, an executive with CommCare, which operates a dozen nursing homes across Louisiana. The recent relaxing of restrictions on nursing homes enabled operators to restart many amenities.

“We have permission to have people out in the common areas,” she said. “Our salons are back open.”

The vast majority of residents in the homes have been vaccinated, Gardner said. Vaccinated residents and staff are tested once a month, and others are tested more frequently, she said.

“If you think about it, a nursing home is probably one of the safest places to be,” she said.

Nursing homes were caught off guard in the early months of the pandemic, as they scrambled to lock campuses down, gather protective equipment that had been in short supply and take other measures to keep residents safe.

More than 2,830 deaths have been linked to COVID-19 in Louisiana nursing homes.

Because nursing home residents live in close quarters and frequently interact with staff, they are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. The illness is especially deadly for long-term care residents since many are older and have underlying health problems that make them more vulnerable to life-threatening symptoms.

Hassig said nursing homes remain vulnerable from employees and others who may contract the virus elsewhere and unknowingly spread it to residents. She also said there is a great amount of uncertainty about how more infectious versions of the virus may impact vaccinated people.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the pandemic at: https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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