(Missouri Independent) – Many of the staff and residents in Shunda Whitfield’s St. Louis County nursing home were sick before they even realized what was going on.
It was April 2020, and masks weren’t yet standard practice. Little was known about COVID before it swept through nursing homes, and as a certified nursing assistant, Whitfield said she “didn’t have a time to duck or dodge.”
She contracted COVID-19 in late April and had to take a month off work to recover. She took another two months to battle a flare-up of Lupus, an inflammatory autoimmune disease with no cure that Whitfield, 51, was diagnosed with five years ago.
Her doctor called nearly every day, worried she might take a turn. Her grandkids couldn’t understand why they could only speak to her through the door.
“What if something goes wrong during the night, and no one hears me? Or I go to sleep and my breathing gets really funny and nobody knows it?” Whitfield recounted thinking. “Would my system fight this off?”
When Whitfield eventually recovered, she said she was paranoid to return to her job and worried the virus still lingered in the facility. But despite her fears, and the fact that as a nursing home employee she was eligible for a vaccine back in December, it wasn’t until three months ago that Whitfield felt comfortable enough to receive her first dose of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine.
“All the way to sitting in the chair,” she said, “I was asking questions.”
The uncertainty Whitfield wrestled with — how would the vaccine interact with her underlying conditions, did she already have immunity from having COVID, what exactly did the vaccine consist of — encapsulates the difficulty nursing homes across Kansas and Missouri face in persuading vaccine-hesitant staff to get the shot.
Whitfield is among the almost 47% of Missouri nursing home staff who have chosen to get the vaccine — still a minority despite being among the very first eligible for the shot.
Missouri’s vaccination rate for nursing home staff is 3rd worst out of all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Guam, and Puerto Rico, according to data compiled by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Only Florida and Louisiana trail Missouri.
In Kansas, just over 56% of workers are vaccinated. The state ranks 35th on that list.
Both states trail the national average of 59.3%.
Nursing home residents, isolated for months from their loved ones, have gotten the shot far more readily. In both states, more than 80% of residents are vaccinated against COVID-19.
That doesn’t account for long-term care facilities that are licensed by the states, like assisted living facilities. Vaccination rates in those facilities aren’t tracked in either Kansas or Missouri.
It was a simple decision for Joe Faver, a resident at The Neighborhoods by TigerPlace in Columbia, Mo., who received his first vaccine dose Friday.
“I don’t want to spread it to anybody,” Faver said.
Nursing homes were some of the first places to bear the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing residents into isolation, only able to see family from a distance as outbreaks haunted seniors.
Now, the vast majority of nursing home residents are vaccinated, allowing some homes to reopen communal dining rooms and return to less restrictive visitation policies.
But as the Delta variant spreads uninhibited among the unvaccinated and, in rare cases, breaks through COVID vaccines, unvaccinated workers in long-term care facilities raise the risks of a return to the darkest days of the pandemic.
“We’re surrounding our most vulnerable residents with a lot of people who are unvaccinated, which is very scary,” said Marjorie Moore, the executive director of VOYCE, a St. Louis nonprofit that advocates for quality living across long-term care.
Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.