Maryland health officials are encouraging as many people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as possible, especially in light of the positive impacts vaccines have had on staff and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
“We’re now on the back end of the fourth wave [of COVID-19], and what we’re seeing, the outbreak numbers are way down for assisted living and nursing homes — that’s got to be directly attributable to the vaccine,” Maryland Health Secretary Dennis Schrader said Wednesday as he and Dr. Jinlene Chan, deputy secretary for public health services, visited Lorien Bel Air.
Chan said the number of outbreaks in long-term care centers has decreased, as well as the size of outbreaks. Outbreaks in long-term care settings ranged from 20 to 100 people getting sick when the pandemic started last March, but outbreaks now affect five to 10 people, or less in some cases, she noted.
“Testing, vaccinations have absolutely made a difference for people’s loved ones,” she said.
“We know vaccines save lives, and [we] continue to, very much, focus on that,” Chan added. “We appreciate the work that’s Lorien has been doing, because it’s had an impact on the families and the residents here.”
Lorien Bel Air is one of nine facilities Lorien Health Services operates in the Baltimore metropolitan region, providing a multitude of services to older adults such as assisted living, skilled nursing, rehabilitation, therapy, tele-medicine, in-home care and hospice services.
The Bel Air facility has about 105 residents and 162 staff members, with 83% of residents and 78% of staffers being vaccinated against COVID-19. The facility also is in the midst of its fourth vaccine clinic since December, and operators are working to increase the percentages of residents and staff getting inoculated, according to Administrator Ed Walter.
“We’ve seen a huge impact that the vaccine has made with the number of cases, not just here but in the whole county,” Walter said, noting that Harford County has had “some very high numbers” of COVID cases.
Harford’s positivity rate hit a peak of more than 10% in early April, the worst in Maryland at the time. There has been a significant decline in that rate over the past month, standing at 3.13% — below the state average — as of Wednesday.
Seniors age 65 and older, especially those living in long-term care facilities, have been hard hit by the pandemic in Maryland and across the nation. Gov. Larry Hogan issued an order this week that nursing homes and other facilities provide data on how many of their residents and staff have been vaccinated, with weekly updates posted on the Maryland Department of Aging’s website.
Chan and Schrader also were scheduled to visit MedStar Health’s Bel Air Medical Campus — next door to the Lorien facility off of Route 924 — as well as the state’s mass vaccination site at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen on Wednesday.
“We’re going all over the state, observing our nursing homes as well as other sites, to make sure that we have an understanding on the ground of how the vaccination [process] is going,” said Schrader.
He noted that “we’ve had great success” getting Marylanders inoculated since vaccines became available in the U.S. in December, with 85% of adults 65 and older receiving at least one dose.
“The next step is to continue finding people in the communities where they are, continuing to drive up the vaccination rates,” he said.
More than 60% of adults 18 and over have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, and teens 16 and older are currently eligible for the two-shot Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, according to Schrader. Officials also are preparing to get younger teens vaccinated, pending the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s granting of emergency authorization to Pfizer’s vaccine for 12 to 15-year-olds.
Getting the next 20% of adults vaccinated will take what Schrader calls “the ground game,” with support from local health departments, hospitals and nursing homes.
“We’re particularly focused on the nursing homes because of the vulnerable populations,” he said.
People have multiple venues where they can get a vaccine in Maryland, including physician’s offices, hospitals, health departments, private pharmacies, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and mass vaccination sites.
About 5 million shots have been given statewide, with more than 2 million people fully vaccinated, according to Schrader, who noted that there has been “some unbelievable work” done to help get vaccines to Marylanders.
“It’s moving along, but it’s going to be a continued [process of] grinding it out,” he said. “We’ve got to find people; we’ve got to encourage them to get vaccinated.”
About 145,000 people 65 and older still need to be vaccinated across the state, and “we’re not going to give up until we get them all,” Schrader said.
Extensive testing and vaccination has allowed state officials and long-term care operators to relax restrictions on families visiting residents. Those who have a relative living in a Lorien facility should call that building to schedule a visit and determine the best way to do it — visitations can happen indoors, outside or virtually, depending on participants’ comfort level, according to Walter, the Bel Air facility administrator.
Walter noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends outdoor visits with nursing home residents.
People can visit the Lorien website for further information. Visitors must go through a health and temperature screening when they arrive, and they must wear masks and maintain social distancing. Point-of-care COVID tests also can be conducted onsite, free of charge, if they are requested when the visit is scheduled.
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Vaccines are currently voluntary for Lorien residents and staff. People are encouraged to talk to facility administrators or their own health care providers, as well as review information from the Maryland Department of Health and the CDC, so they can make an informed decision about getting the vaccine, Walter said.