The COVID-19 vaccines designed to help protect the public against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and eventually bring the pandemic to an end are rolling out now in the US and elsewhere. Elderly individuals are at the greatest risk when it comes to the virus, and so it’s no surprise that nursing homes are among the first to deploy the vaccine. Don’t expect these facilities to open their doors to the public anytime soon, however.
The rapid development and release of a COVID-19 vaccine is an incredible success for public health, but many questions still remain — as well as general confusion and misinformation regarding what the vaccine can and cannot do. The CDC explains on its website that while the COVID-19 vaccine is the best way to protect against catching the deadly disease, it doesn’t work immediately.
The mRNA vaccines deployed in the US and elsewhere do not contain the live virus behind COVID — rather, they are designed to essentially ‘teach’ your immune system to identify and target the virus, a process that takes a few weeks. For this reason, if you happen to come in contact with the virus right before or soon after getting vaccinated, you can still get sick because your body wouldn’t have had enough time to build immunity.
In guidance published last week, the CDC offered its recommendations to nursing homes and long-term care facilities on how they should proceed with post-vaccine life — and, to put it simply, not much will change, at least initially. In addition to the risk of infection in the few weeks immediately after the vaccine, the CDC notes:
Because information is currently lacking on vaccine effectiveness in the general population; the resultant reduction in disease, severity, or transmission; or the duration of protection, residents and healthcare personnel should continue to follow all current infection prevention and control recommendations to protect themselves and others from SARS-CoV-2 infection, regardless of their vaccination status.
Nursing homes and similar facilities have generally been closed to visitors for months and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. Though preventative measures like hand washing and wearing masks can reduce the odds of passing on the virus, they’re not perfect and the individuals who reside at these facilities are often in the highest-risk group.
The CDC goes on to explain:
While this guidance is intended for long-term care facilities, it could also be applied to patients in other healthcare settings. These considerations are based on the current understanding of signs and symptoms following COVID-19 vaccination, including timing and duration, and might change as experience with the vaccine accumulates.
When will you finally be able to visit your friend or relative in a nursing home or long-term care facility? There’s no clear answer at this point and any loosening of restrictions will likely take place not only on a state-by-state basis, but also on a facility-by-facility basis. In the meantime, many facilities have acquired tablets and are helping residents video chat with their family and friends to ease the pain of distance.
As well, and again depending on each states’ regulations, some nursing homes are allowing limited in-person visitation during select hours in cases where the facilities go 14 days without any COVID cases. These visits typically require strict social distancing, COVID screening, masks, and similar protective measures to help keep everyone safe — and, as you’d expect, they remain controversial, with some believing they’re still too risky.