Even with only partial data, nursing homes were the second-deadliest workplace amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new analysis — and the missing numbers may well push the setting into the top spot.
U.S. nursing homes logged 80 deaths for every 100,000 full-time employees last year, Scientific American concluded in a study published Thursday. For comparison, only the fishing industry had a higher rate at 145 deaths per 100,000 in 2019; nursing home staffers had the dubious honor of beating out other perilous professions such as loggers (68.9 per 100,000), pilots (61.8 per 100,000), and roofers (54 per 100,000).
The national average across all workplaces in 2019 was 3.5 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers.
The Scientific American analysis, like so many other attempts to quantify the exact toll of COVID-19 on nursing home residents and staff members, was hamstrung by a lack of complete data. The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) only mandated nationwide COVID reporting from nursing homes beginning May 17, leaving out the initial spikes in the Northeast and elsewhere during the first chaotic months of the pandemic.
“Given that the CMS data for 2020 were only reported from last May onward, the full year’s actual death rate for nursing home staff may have approached or even exceeded that of fishers,” Scientific American observed.
The lack of comprehensive data isn’t just limited to the federal level. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been embroiled in a scandal over the apparent underreporting of nursing home deaths in the state, while a recent report in the Sacramento Bee discovered large gaps in the public database of information about worker deaths.
The Scientific American study comes as concerns over nursing home workers’ reluctance to receive COVID-19 vaccines remain in the headlines almost daily. Only about 37.5% of staffers rolled up their sleeves during the first month of clinics, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) found, with a variety of sources pointing to an overarching sense of distrust among overworked and underpaid staffs that have gone through an incredibly difficult year.
Lori Porter, the CEO and co-founder of the National Association of Health Care Assistants (NAHCA), raised serious concerns about that dynamic even before the vaccine rollout began.
“They don’t believe there was time to develop a proper vaccine,” Porter told SNN last December. “They don’t want to be guinea pigs. Even one said: I’ll take it if they’ll buy life insurance on me, but I’m not going to take it and die poor.”
Porter echoed that sentiment in conversation with Scientific American.
“We know the compensation is way too low, but no one successfully addressed that,” she said. “Along came the pandemic, and we had way too few [people] to take [it on]. There’s been a lot of fear, a lot of death all around.”