Hospitalizations signal rising COVID-19 risk for US seniors

Dec 11, 2022, 7:58 AM | Updated: Dec 13, 2022, 12:46 pm
Tina Sandri, CEO of Forest Hills of DC senior living facility, passes a COVID-19 informational sign...

Tina Sandri, CEO of Forest Hills of DC senior living facility, passes a COVID-19 informational sign while walking to her office on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in Washington. Coronavirus-related hospital admissions are climbing again in the United States, with older adults a growing share of U.S. deaths. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

(AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Coronavirus-related hospital admissions are climbing again in the United States, with older adults a growing share of U.S. deaths and less than half of nursing home residents up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations.

These alarming signs portend a difficult winter for seniors, which worries 81-year-old nursing home resident Bartley O’Hara, who said he is “vaccinated up to the eyeballs” and tracks coronavirus hospital trends as they “zoom up” for older adults, but remain flat for younger folks.

“The sense of urgency is not universal,” said O’Hara of Washington, D.C. But “if you’re 21, you probably should worry about your granny. We’re all in this together.”

One troubling indicator for seniors: Hospitalizations for people with COVID-19 rose by more than 30% in two weeks. Much of the increase is driven by older people and those with existing health problems, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The numbers include everyone testing positive, no matter why they are admitted.

When it comes to protecting seniors, “we’re doing a terrible job of that in this country,” said Dr. Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute.

As nursing home leaders redouble efforts to get staff and residents boosted with the new vaccine version, now recommended for those 6 months and older, they face complacency, misinformation and COVID-19 fatigue. They are calling on the White House for help with an “all hands on deck” approach.

Clear messages about what the vaccine can do — and what it can’t — are needed, said Katie Smith Sloan, president of LeadingAge, which represents nonprofit nursing homes.

Breakthrough infections do not mean the vaccine has failed, she said, but that false perception has been hard to fight.

“We need to change our messaging to be accurate about what it does, which is prevent serious illness and hospitalization and death,” Sloan said. “This virus is insidious, and it just keeps popping up everywhere. We just need to be real about that.”

Problems include unwarranted hesitance to prescribe the antiviral pill Paxlovid quickly in the elderly, which prompted five major medical societies to hold a web-based educational session for doctors, “Vax & Pax: How to Keep Your Patients Safe This Winter.”

Easing restrictions, broader immunity in the general population and mixed messages about whether the pandemic is over have softened the sense of threat felt by younger adults. That may be a welcome development for most, but the attitude has seeped into nursing homes in troubling ways.

Getting family consent for vaccinating nursing home residents has become more difficult, nursing home leaders say. Some residents who can give their own consent are declining the shots. Only 23% of nursing home staff are up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations.

Cissy Sanders of Austin, Texas, met multiple obstacles trying to get a booster for her 73-year-old mother, who is in a nursing home. No booster clinic was scheduled. The facility told her they couldn’t find a vaccinator. So she made plans to take her mom to Walgreens later this month.

“I’m concerned about the uptick in hospitalizations and deaths among seniors, and concerned about the lack of urgency at my mother’s nursing home in getting the residents and staff vaccinated” with the latest booster, she said.

Staff and visitors are potential entry points to nursing homes for the virus. The best facilities use a multi-layered approach, protecting residents with masks, screening questions, temperature checks and enhanced infection control.

“What we’ve learned during COVID is that the rate of spread is dependent on the community rate of spread,” said Tina Sandri, CEO of Forest Hills of D.C., a nursing home in the nation’s capital. “I feel safer in my building than anywhere else, including the grocery store.”

Meanwhile, hospitals across the country are seeing an influx of senior patients that Topol calls “pretty alarming.” Nationally, the rate of daily hospital admissions for those 70 and older with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 rose from 8.8 per 100,000 people on Nov. 15, to 12.1 per 100,000 people on Dec. 6, according to statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services. In California and New York, Topol said, hospitalizations for seniors with COVID-19 have already surpassed those during spring and summer omicron waves.

At NYU Langone Health, chief hospital epidemiologist Dr. Michael Phillips said a growing number of seniors are being admitted to his hospital with COVID-19. But the biggest increase he’s seen is in the emergency department, “which is very, very busy” with COVID-19, as well as flu patients.

Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas, said his hospital has also seen an increase in COVID-19 admissions over the last couple of weeks — and many of the patients are seniors with other health problems. Some are admitted for different illnesses and test positive for COVID-19 in the hospital. The good news? “We haven’t seen an increase in ICU admissions,” he said.

The new combination booster shot, which targets both omicron and the original coronavirus, provides protection against one of the main omicron variants pushing up cases lately: BQ.1.1, which is especially adept at escaping immunity.

“But our booster rates among seniors are pathetically low,” Topol said, with only about a third getting the shot.

Long said health care providers at Houston Methodist promote the booster “every chance we get.” But they don’t administer it to people hospitalized with COVID-19, who are generally told to wait three months after being infected to get it.

Phillips also urges people to get their boosters, especially if they are at risk of serious illness or planning to spend time with someone who is. He said they see many more hospitalizations among people who are unvaccinated.

Deaths, like hospitalizations, are now rising.

The ultimate worry is that more seniors will die. Last spring and summer, death rates declined overall as more people gained protection from vaccination and prior infection. But the share of COVID-19-related deaths for the oldest old — adults 85 and older, who make up 2% of the population — grew to 40%.

Over the course of the pandemic, 1 in 5 COVID-19 deaths was among those who were in a long-term care facility.

Dr. Walid Michelen, chief medical officer for seven nonprofit nursing homes operated by the Archdiocese of New York, said Americans need to continue taking the pandemic seriously.

“It’s not going away. It’s here to stay,” he said. “We’re going to get a new variant, and who knows how aggressive that variant is going to be? That keeps me up at night.”

___

Associated Press writer Nicky Forster contributed from New York.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled de...
Associated Press

Residents kept out as air checked near derailed Ohio train

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP) — It’s unclear when evacuated residents might be able to return home to the area where officials released and burned toxic chemicals from the wreckage of a derailed train, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday. Residents near the site in East Palestine, close to the Pennsylvania line, were ordered beforehand to […]
8 hours ago
This image provided by Catalina María Gomez Caycedo shows Aleena Rupani, from left, Catalina Marí...
Associated Press

Gallup: Just 2 in 10 U.S. employees have work `best friend’

NEW YORK (AP) — Crystal Powers began a new job remotely in February 2022 as a medical records supervisor. She has yet to meet two of the five people who report to her in person and has found it challenging to bond with her fellow managers online. “I was used to that face-to-face of going […]
8 hours ago
FILE - Protesters hold signs as they march during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chica...
Associated Press

How Candid hopes diversity data will help aid racial equity

Candid, the major philanthropy research group, is leading a coalition of funders and grantees that want to standardize the collection of demographic information to help target donations to minority-led groups. Harnessing such data could help advance racial equity, said Candid’s CEO, Ann Mei Chang, who is launching a nonprofit initiative to amass more such information. […]
8 hours ago
Associated Press

Bertelsmann subsidiary to end, sell dozens of magazines

BERLIN (AP) — German media group RTL Deutschland said Tuesday it will stop publishing 23 print magazines and seek to sell almost two dozen others, affecting about 700 jobs. The company is part of Bertelsmann, the German conglomerate that also owns Penguin Random House. RTL Deutschland said it wants to focus on core brands that […]
8 hours ago
Associated Press

Germany appoints central bank IT chief to head cybersecurity

BERLIN (AP) — The German government announced the appointment Tuesday of the European Central Bank’s head of IT systems to lead the national cybersecurity agency, months after her predecessor was removed following reports of possible problematic ties to Russia. Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said Claudia Plattner “brings the experience and expertise with her that we […]
8 hours ago
Associated Press

Millennial Money: Should unmarried couples have one account?

When a couple joins financial forces, it’s typically so they can accomplish a joint savings goal or contribute to shared expenses, such as those that come from living together. This is a typical step for married couples, but more unmarried couples are taking the plunge to combine households: The number of unmarried partners that live […]
8 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet edges out cable for everyday use

In a world where technology drives so much of our daily lives, a lack of high-speed internet can be a major issue.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
...
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
Hospitalizations signal rising COVID-19 risk for US seniors