Pfizer, Moderna and the University of Oxford are among the organizations to tout highly effective COVID-19 vaccines this month. With “the cavalry coming,” the focus is now shifting to how, when and where vaccines should be distributed.
In September, the American Health Care Association (AHCA) and National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL) urged state leaders to prioritize nursing homes and assisted living communities for vaccine distribution, pointing to the tragic deaths among both residents and staff. In-home care advocates and other aging services stakeholders have made similar overtures.
Early policies out of Texas suggest those outreach efforts are paying off.
Workers in long-term care settings serving high-risk, vulnerable populations should be part of the first group to receive COVID-19 vaccines, according to new recommendations from Texas’ COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. That includes home health workers.
“These guiding principles established by the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel will ensure that the State of Texas swiftly distributes the COVID-19 vaccine to Texans who voluntarily choose to be immunized,” Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, said in a statement.
In addition to long-term care workers, hospital staff members and emergency medical responders directly caring for COVID-19 patients will likewise receive early access to a vaccine.
Specifically, home health workers are included in Texas’ “Tier 1” prioritization category, along with hospice staff. “Tier 2” includes outpatient settings where health care providers are treating patients exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
Nearly 3,700 health care providers and institutions in Texas have signed up to receive vaccine shipments, The Dallas Morning News reported, attributing the information to a spokesman from the Department of State Health Services.
“This foundation for the allocation process will help us mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, protect the most vulnerable Texans, and safeguard crucial state resources,” Abbott’s statement continued.
While Texas is one of the only states so far to directly call out home health workers, others have broadly identified “health care workers” as early vaccine recipients.
In California’s framework unveiled Monday, for example, state officials said the goal is to first vaccinate the state’s 2.4 million health care workers, including first responders and those who work in congregate care settings.
Full Phase 1 distribution recommendation will be ready by Dec. 1, according to Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who recently had to quarantine with his family after his children were exposed to the coronavirus.
“The first tranche of vaccinations will be extraordinarily limited,” Newsom clarified.
Considering the developments in Texas, it’s likely that even more states will focus on in-home care workers in days to come. Doing so certainly makes sense from a numbers standpoint, as home health and hospice agencies employ millions of workers who deliver care to even more high-risk individuals each year.
In 2018, the country’s network of roughly 11,500 home health agencies cared to 3.4 million Medicare beneficiaries, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC). In doing so, they delivered roughly 6.3 million visits.
Most of those beneficiaries suffered from multiple chronic conditions and had trouble eating, bathing or dressing.
In 2019, home health agencies employed an estimated 1.5 million workers, according to the Alliance for Home Health Quality and Innovation’s 2020 Chartbook, produced in conjunction with Avalere Health.
While Texas is clearly prioritizing home health and hospice workers, it is unclear whether “health care workers” also includes front-line professionals in the non-medical home care field.
How government officials define “home care” has been an issue throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in regard to paid-leave rules outlined in the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA).
Even if states prioritize home health and home care agencies for a COVID-19 vaccine, it’s not a guarantee that workers will opt for one, especially with all the unknowns and potentially unpleasant side effects.
Participants in Moderna and Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine trials told CNBC in September, for instance, that they experienced “high fever, body aches, bad headaches, daylong exhaustion and other symptoms” after receiving the shots.
For the 2019-2020 flu, vaccination coverage among health care personnel was 80.6%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By occupation, flu vaccination coverage was highest among physicians, nurses, pharmacists, nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
Flu vaccination coverage was lowest among health care aides and non-clinical personnel, the CDC notes.