Coronavirus cases and deaths among nursing home residents rose statewide for the second straight month after a long period of decline, according to data from AARP Virginia, the state chapter of the national advocacy group for Americans aged 50 and older.
Rates are still far lower than in the early days of the pandemic, when the virus swept through long-term care facilities largely unchecked. From late April to mid-June, resident case rates in Virginia increased from 2.74 per 100 to 4.14, while death rates increased from .04 per 100 to .06, according to a Thursday news release.
Data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services indicates that just over 84 percent of nursing home residents in Virginia are fully vaccinated and boosted, and the state’s continued low death rate among those vulnerable patients speaks to the strong protection vaccines convey against severe disease and death. But the rise is still concerning, advocates say, amid the continued spread of highly infectious subvariants. Until the most recent increase over the last two months, both cases and deaths had been steadily declining in nursing homes following the state’s historic winter surge.
“Rising deaths and cases of COVID-19 among nursing home residents and staff nationally show that for their sakes, we must remain vigilant,” David DeBiasi, the advocacy director of AARP Virginia, said in a statement. “And we must hold nursing homes accountable for providing high quality care and safe environments.”
For much of the pandemic, cases and deaths in nursing homes have been a bellwether for spread in the broader community. When transmission is high, it increases the risk of staff members catching and spreading the virus to elderly patients.
Eighteen counties and localities in Virginia are currently seeing a high level of transmission, including the city of Richmond, according to data from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. And statewide, case numbers are still on the rise, driven largely by the highly infectious omicron subvariant BA.5, which shows signs of being able to evade immunity from previous vaccines and infections.
The New York Times reported that the subvariant is driving a new wave of cases, reinfections and hospitalizations across the country, and there’s also been a rise in COVID admissions statewide, according to data from the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. Deaths currently remain at their lowest level since the start of the pandemic, based on reporting from the Virginia Department of Health.
But on average, case rates across Virginia are roughly four times higher than they were last summer, according to the most recent report from UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute, which provides modeling and projections to state health officials. Hospitalization numbers are also rising more quickly than cases, which — thanks to the proliferation of at-home testing — are going unreported to a much larger degree than earlier in the pandemic.
AARP Virginia said the increase of cases and deaths among some of the most vulnerable Virginians heightened “concerns that a new surge is upon us.” But health experts continue to emphasize that COVID-19 vaccines are still highly protective against severe disease and death, even with immune-evading subvariants.
In late June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration directed vaccine manufacturers to develop booster doses that targeted newer omicron variants. Those shots are expected to be released in the fall, and UVA researchers urged anyone already eligible for a fourth dose to get one “as soon as possible.”
“BA.4 and BA.5 are both capable of causing reinfections among those with natural and vaccine-induced immunity,” they wrote. “Models suggest these two subvariants may cause a small case surge in the coming months.”
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