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Iowa's nursing home staff COVID-19 vaccination rates have improved but still lag behind the national

An employee of Arbor Springs nursing home in West Des Moines gets a COVID-19 shot on Dec. 28.
An employee of Arbor Springs nursing home in West Des Moines gets a COVID-19 shot on Dec. 28.

The COVID-19 vaccination rate of Iowa’s nursing home staff increased by 4 percentage points as of mid-October, but the state’s rate still lags behind national figures, according to data compiled by AARP Iowa.

The analysis by AARP, using nursing home data that is required to be reported to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, found 71 percent of Iowa’s nursing home staff were vaccinated as of last month, which is below the national rate of 74 percent.

Anthony Carroll, the advocacy manager for AARP Iowa, said the organization would like to see that number further increase.

"It's improvement," he said. "We still want to get closer to that 75 percent threshold, so we can really, again, help ensure that residents families and staff are safe in Iowa’s nursing homes."

Carroll said he's concerned about possible outbreaks with the state's cold weather on the horizon.

"There's a heightened concern with the winter months coming as people are indoors more," he said. "And these...are really some of the places where COVID spreads in the most dangerous places with the most vulnerable populations."

The Biden administration is requiring health care workers in facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid be vaccinated by Jan. 4, which includes nursing home staff.

Iowa is one of ten states suing the federal government over the mandate, claiming it is unconstitutional and unlawful.

"I believe the vaccine is the best defense against COVID-19, but I also firmly believe in Iowans’ right to make health care decisions based on what’s best for themselves and their families, and I remain committed to protecting those freedoms," said Gov. Kim Reynolds, in a statement issued earlier this month.

The Iowa Health Care Association, which represents most of the state's nursing homes, has also opposed the mandate, citing concerns it could make the industry's staffing shortage even worse.

Carroll said AARP supports the federal mandate for health care workers.

"We know how important not just keeping people safe, out of the hospital, but it making it easier to visit family and staff to avoid that social isolation. They all go hand in hand," he said.

However, the AARP analysis found Iowa's nursing home residents are vaccinated at a higher rate than the nation as a whole.

It found 93 percent of residents were vaccinated as of mid-October with no significant increase, a figure that's higher than the national rate of 86 percent.

State health officials have reported in recent months COVID-19 outbreaks at long-term care facilities, which includes other congregate living facilities besides nursing homes, are increasing.

As of Friday, 26 facilities were reporting outbreaks, a significant increase from this spring and summer when reported outbreaks were down to just a handful at a time.

Copyright 2021 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio.