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Wow: COVID deaths in nursing homes plummet relative to total population as vaccinations proceed

Not surprising, of course. But every now and then you stumble across a graph that makes you whistle. This one gets a long, slow whistle.

That reminds me of the trend recently seen in Israel, in which people under 60 accounted for more new hospitalizations than people over 60 did. That dynamic feels unnatural for a disease that disproportionately preys on the old and infirm but it’s elementary once you remember which age group has been prioritized for vaccinations. Residents of long-term care facilities were one of the two groups given top priority here in the U.S. when the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved in December, and you can see what that got us in the result above. Even experts are shocked and delighted by the data:

“I’m almost at a loss for words at how amazing it is and how exciting,” said Dr. David Gifford, the chief medical officer for the American Health Care Association, which represents thousands of long-term care facilities across the country…

“What is certainly surprising to me is how quickly we’re seeing this,” said Dr. Sunil Parikh, an associate professor of epidemiology and medicine at Yale School of Public Health in Connecticut, where weekly cases in nursing homes had dropped from several hundred around the holidays to as little as 30 statewide during one recent week.

Some of the decline is due to the general decline in cases across the U.S. population, but even accounting for that, the progress made in this niche is dramatic. The Times notes one study of hundreds of nursing homes that found a 21 percent decline in cases within those that didn’t have the earliest access to the vaccine — versus a 48 percent decline within those that did. Overall, nearly 4.5 million residents of long-term-care facilities have received their first dose of the vaccine and nearly 2.2. million have received both doses.

KFF visualized the national shift in another whistle-worthy graph:

Numbers are great but they don’t capture what immunity means to nursing-home residents in human terms. This story about the decline in cases in Minnesota nursing homes does. “We just started doing visitation [indoors] again in the last few weeks. Our elders have been able to reunite with families, obviously with masks on,” said one staffer to MPP. “We have a big open air space on the first floor. Our elders [are] just excited to get off of their floor and to see their families and to reunite with people they haven’t seen in so long except through a monitor or TV screen.” Last week there were just 15 new COVID cases in Minnesota nursing homes, the lowest number since March, and recently there have been fewer weekly cases in nursing homes than in assisted-living facilities for the first time during the pandemic — a phenomenon likely due to the fact that nursing homes were prioritized for vaccinations before ALFs were.

Your feelgood story of the day comes from the Washington Post, which spoke to medical personnel charged with administering the vaccine to the general public. “I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience in my career that has felt so promising and so fulfilling,” said one.

“I will never forget the face of the first person I vaccinated,” says Ebram Botros, a CVS pharmacy manager in Whitehall, Ohio. It was an 80-year-old man who said that he hadn’t seen his children or grandchildren since March…

“You can see their smiles through their masks,” [Corie Robinson] says of her patients. One elderly man sang while he got his shot. Others request pamphlets about the vaccine because they want to put them in time capsules. One man told Robinson he was making history twice — he had been among the first children in America to receive the polio vaccine…

O’Connell recalls vaccinating a man who lost his mother to covid-19 the night before and still showed up for his appointment, which made all the nurses cry…

Poku, the Northern Virginia nurse, says that “the emotional time is when I see a husband and a wife receive the vaccine together at the same time, and they’re grandparents, and they’re just so excited to see their grandchildren.” They ask her to take photos, and sometimes to be in the photo, too. “I guess I’m making history with them.”

Other countries are also seeing strong results in vaccinating the elderly. In Scotland, there’s been an 81 percent decline in hospitalizations after four weeks among those 80 or older who’ve received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Oxford vaccines. Needless to say, if the vaccines are having this kind of effect on the most frail members of the population, we might reasonably expect even stronger protection among younger people whose immune systems are more robust.

I’ll leave you with this to wrap an unusually optimistic pandemic-themed post. Exit question: If nursing homes are no longer the most dangerous hotspot in America, what is? Could it be … gyms? I’d say “bars” but they’re mostly closed now.