Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Health Department Survey Finds Only About Half Of Pennsylvania's Nursing Home Staff Have Been Vaccinated

syringes covid vaccine
Fred Adams
Spotlight PA
Syringes containing vaccine stand at the ready for members of the public to get the vaccine administered to them in the Sullivan County Elementary School in Laporte Bourgh Sullivan County Pennsylvania.

A high percentage of staff at Pennsylvania’s skilled-nursing facilities are still not vaccinated against COVID-19. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, only 52.6% of staff had been vaccinated as of April 1.

A survey done by the department found that 78.8% of the residents living at skilled nursing facilities have gotten shots.

Pennsylvania's rate of vaccinations barely outpaces the national average, which is 50%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Keara Klinepeter, the health department's executive deputy secretary, said the state did not collect data about why staff haven’t been vaccinated.

“But anecdotally what we’ve heard is that there were a number of staff who didn’t want to be the first to get vaccinated. They wanted to see their colleagues [and] their families get vaccinated [first],” she said.

The vaccination rate is slightly higher in Allegheny County, where 58% of skilled nursing facility staff and 84% of residents have been vaccinated. Below are the percentages in other nearby counties:

  • Armstrong: 53.4% staff, 63.7% residents
  • Beaver: 50.3% staff, 46.9% residents
  • Butler: 46.6% staff, 96.7% residents
  • Fayette: 59.2% staff, 58.6% residents
  • Indiana: 55.4% staff, 58.7% residents
  • Washington: 57.7% staff, 76.5% residents
  • Westmoreland: 51.6% staff, 77.8% residents

The low numbers worry state health officials. There have been more than 2,775 outbreaks in 1,586 long-term care facilities since the start of the pandemic, according to the department. A low vaccination rate among staff could threaten to cause future outbreaks in facilities.

“Staff are just out doing normal things in their life like going to the grocery store, picking their kids up,” Klinepeter said. “They may asymptomatically contract the virus and bring it into the facility. This is why we’re strongly encouraging them to be vaccinated.”

On Thursday, the health department announced a system through which facilities can vaccinate new residents and staff on an ongoing basis. Previously, facilities had to make arrangements on their own to find vaccines for new residents and staff.

The new system resumes the federal pharmacy partnership for long-term care program. The CDC program was responsible for the initial campaign targeting nursing home residents and staff, which began in December.

The facilities that will benefit from the new strategy are licensed by either the Department of Health or the Department of Human Services.

The first phase of the program in Pennsylvania, executed by CVS and Walgreens, limited participation to long-term care facilities that met specific criteria. During the second phase, if an eligible long-term care pharmacy wants to serve a facility, they may.

Klinepeter said making a system consistent statewide could increase vaccination rates among staff.

“From the beginning of the pandemic through the vaccination of residents and staff, the health and well-being of people in long-term care facilities has been a priority," she said. "We know that COVID-19 spreads in communities where the virus is circulating, and that is why it is on all of us to ensure we are protecting our most vulnerable."

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.