Are nursing home residents getting badly needed COVID boosters? Here’s why it’s hard to tell.

December 6, 2021

In October and early November, 16 nursing home residents and one staff member at Philadelphia Protestant Home tested positive for COVID-19. Three people in independent living also got sick.

It was a strong sign that vaccine protection was waning in this vulnerable population eight months after almost all residents got their second shots. Every single case was a breakthrough infection, said John Dubyk, the Northeast Philadelphia retirement community’s president and CEO.

Two of the nursing home’s 57 residents died following infection.

John Dubyk is president and CEO of Philadelphia Protestant Home.TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

The CDC had approved Pfizer boosters for people in nursing homes on Sept. 24. Dubyk said the first date he could schedule the shots was Nov. 2. They were received enthusiastically. There have been no new cases, he said, since Nov. 7.

Although the rise of the new variant, omicron, raises the specter of “more chaos” for his industry, Dubyk said boosters make him more confident that his facility can avoid another surge.


Gaps in federal and state reporting make it impossible to know whether other long-term care facilities have, like Philadelphia Protestant Home, been able to give boosters to most of their residents.

It is well-known, though, that nursing home residents are especially prone to serious illness and death from COVID-19. The virus burned through some facilities during its first assault on the United States last year. Nearly 138,000 residents have died. A combination of lockdowns, better access to protective equipment, and better treatment helped during subsequent waves, but cases really plummeted after vaccines became available earlier this year. However, because of their age and many health problems, nursing home residents have weaker immune systems, an added risk factor as vaccine protection weakened and the delta variant emerged. Nationally, about 1,400 residents have died in the last month, according to the CDC.