05052021 Sullivan County Health Care Nursing Home Outbreak

A large sign is seen posted at the entrance of the Sullivan County Complex in Unity, which is home to the 156-bed Sullivan County Health Care facility, the county department of corrections, and a gazebo constructed by members of the Transitional Reentry and Inmate Life Skills (TRAILS) program in October of 2019. Sullivan County officials are looking into additional policies intended to stop the spread of the novel COVID-19 virus in wake of an ongoing outbreak at the nursing home.

UNITY — Sullivan County officials will examine a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination requirement in addition to new policies incentivizing employees to vaccinate following a recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the county nursing home.

The Sullivan County nursing home is weathering a new outbreak of the novel coronavirus affecting a total of 11 residents and five staff as of Monday, after testing the whole population on Tuesday, April 27. Of these totals, one resident and one staff member had tested positive prior to Tuesday’s testing.

Ted Purdy, Sullivan County director of health care, said two active cases, one resident and one staff person, were identified over the weekend following the initial report.

On Monday, Sullivan County Manager Derek Ferland said that, under a new policy change, unvaccinated employees who contract the novel coronavirus will no longer be eligible to receive the county’s alternative compensation for missed work days.

The county instituted a compensation program last year for employees in quarantine, paying the employee two-thirds of his or her wages for a missed day of work. The program was designed to relieve employees from having to use their sick or vacation days due to the virus.

Under the new policy, only vaccinated employees will still be eligible for this compensation, according to Ferland. Unvaccinated employees who contract the virus will have to utilize their sick or vacation days to still be paid.

“It’s not that we’re trying to be mean about it,” Ferland said. “[But] as long as there are hosts, the virus continues to do its thing. And the number of hosts is directly proportional to the number of people who are not vaccinated.”

The county is also considering whether to mandate nursing home staff who work directly with the residents, such as nurses, to be vaccinated.

This proposal, should it be adopted, would likely take effect Aug. 1, according to Purdy, who explained this date would allow time for staff to transition and develop provisions for medical or religious exceptions.

“I think we may experience some kickback [from employees],” Purdy told the commissioners. “But I think we have a responsibility in long term health care, as this latest outbreak has shown, that we still need to care for our elderly and our most vulnerable.”

The administrators and commissioners still want to research questions about the proposal, including potential liability risks.

Presently, 92% of the county home residents and 75% of the staff are fully vaccinated, Purdy said.

Notably, 10 of the 11 residents who contracted the virus were fully vaccinated, according to Purdy.

While skeptics of the vaccine might interpret this information as validation, Purdy told The Eagle Times this outbreak illustrates both the vaccine’s effectiveness and the importance for more community members to get vaccinated.

“It shows there is still a risk [of infection] from community spread,” Purdy said. “The community-wide vaccination percentage needs to be between 70% and 80% to achieve herd community. As long as the herd community is not fully accomplished, the virus puts our residents and staff at risk.”

Clinical studies have found the COVID-19 vaccine to be 90-95% effective, but that also means a small percentage of vaccinated people may still contract the virus, Purdy said.

Additionally a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found “some evidence” that the newer mutated variants of the virus have slightly more resistance to the antibodies produced by the vaccine.

In a study conducted by the Kentucky Department of Public Health, 83 nursing home residents and 116 health care professionals participated in vaccination clinics in February to test the vaccine’s effectiveness against “emerging variants” of the virus. Approximately 90% of the residents and 52% of the employees received two vaccine doses.

The study found that 25% of vaccinated residents and 7% of vaccinated employees were infected by the tested variant, “supporting concerns about potential reduced protective immunity to [the variant],” according to the CDC report.

But the study still found that the vaccinated individuals were 87% less likely to be symptomatic than individuals who did not receive the vaccine, the report stated. The study also found that unvaccinated individuals were “significantly more likely to require hospitalization” than the vaccinated individuals.

Purdy noted a similar reason for encouraging people to get vaccinated.

“Even if you do get the virus when vaccinated, the symptoms are relatively minor,” Purdy said.

Ten of Sullivan County’s 11 residents have either been asymptomatic or only encountered mild cold-like symptoms, Purdy said. One resident was sent to the hospital but is reportedly in stable condition.

Currently, the positivity rate in Sullivan County is more than 5%. As of Sunday nearly 26% of New Hampshire residents are fully vaccinated.

Purdy said the facility has ceased visitations and is following state guidelines for nursing homes.

To resume visitations, the nursing home must go two weeks without any resident or staff testing positive for the virus and Sullivan County’s positivity rate must stay below 10%.

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