As nursing homes wait for COVID-19 vaccines, they face dire staffing, financial challenges

  • The New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Geoff Forester

Monitor staff
Published: 12/15/2020 3:33:14 PM

Hope for the end of the pandemic has arrived in New Hampshire as the state begins to distribute more than 12,000 vaccines. Nursing homes in the state, however, are still grappling with the ongoing fallout from outbreaks that have ravaged their facilities and are wondering when their vaccines will arrive. 

Many doses in the first wave of vaccines are expected to go to front line workers in long term care facilities. Yet several nursing homes in the Granite State say they’ve been left in the dark about when their staff will receive the shots. Patricia Ramsey, the owner of Edgewood Centre in Portsmouth, said several nursing homes including her own haven’t been contacted to schedule vaccination appointments. 

“We are all sitting here on pins and needles waiting for that to arrive,” she said Monday. “We’re very concerned. Our families are looking for those vaccines, our residents, our staff. It just can’t come soon enough.” 

Brendan Williams, the president of the New Hampshire Health Care Association, said those who have been in contact with pharmacies about vaccines, have received a range of dates for when their staff can get their vaccinations. Anecdotally, he heard nursing homes in hard-hit areas of Rockingham County received a vaccine date in January while other facilities that haven’t been as severely impacted by the virus received vaccine dates in December. 

Jake Leon, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, said because the program is controlled by the federal government and not the state government, he cannot comment on the timeline of the vaccines other than to confirm the rollout is beginning this week. 

Furthermore, while nursing homes wait for vaccines, many have had delays in receiving COVID-19 test results. Luanne Rogers, an administrator at St. Teresa Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Manchester, said when her home first started testing, the state lab returned results within two days. More recently, her facility has had to wait five or six days before determining if someone had the virus. Often, Rogers received test results back just before submitting her next round of tests. Rogers said she decided to partner with an out of state testing facility to receive results more promptly. 

All of these challenges are on a backdrop of impending financial hardship and thinning staff. 

Nursing homes are staying afloat with federal funding and state help procuring personal protective equipment. 

“What happens when that disappears?” Rogers asked. “I don’t know any provider who’s not worried about their survivability at this point.” 

Nursing homes have had to turn away new residents, their typical source of income, due to positive cases among staff and residents. Ramsey said the census at Edgewood Centre has dropped by more than 30%. At a round table with U.S Sen. Maggie Hassan, administrators begged lawmakers to remember that these financial struggles won’t disappear when the vaccine is administered. Ramsey said it will be impossible to just admit 30 residents overnight— instead, it will be a long road to financial recovery.

Staffing, an issue that predated the pandemic, has also grown worse since the start of the pandemic. 

Last week, the New Hampshire Veterans Home administrators made a plea to the public to apply to work at the facility. 35 staff members and 13 part-time staff were out with positive COVID-19 test results, leaving the facility with huge holes in their workforce. They need people to fill nearly every position— security officers, food workers, maintenance crews, laundry workers, and nurses.

The facility reported its 35th death on Monday. More than half of residents have been infected and more than a quarter have died since the virus was first detected in the facility in early November. 

Laura Mills, the administrator at Coos County Nursing Hospital, said at the height of the outbreaks at her facility, staff slept at the facility and worked double shifts to fill in the gaps. 

“We are here at the very top of the state," she said. “We didn’t have anywhere to call on for help.” 

Todd Fahey, the Director of New Hampshire’s AARP, criticized the state for failing to address the staffing crisis before the virus tore through the facilities. He said years ago when Hassan was governor, he served on a commission to address that very problem. Since then, he said very little has been done to improve the staffing shortages.

“This was an issue then and we have done nothing about it,” he said. 

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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