Now, with the data through February 11, the shift is clear: Deaths are falling in long-term-care facilities. Cases, too, have plummeted. As important, deaths in these facilities are declining not just in absolute numbers, but as a share of COVID-19 deaths in the whole country. In early January, the percentage of COVID-19 deaths associated with outbreaks in long-term-care facilities decreased below 30 percent for the first time since we began collecting LTC data, in May, and it has continued to decrease since. This change correlates strongly with mass vaccinations in these facilities.
First, the absolute numbers: Excluding data from Missouri and New York—both of which dumped large numbers of undated deaths into their LTC data in the past month, confounding analysis of both their individual states and the national numbers—the number of deaths in long-term-care facilities has fallen 50 percent from the peak of reported deaths in mid-January.
But deaths are clearly falling among all age groups in the U.S., so one could imagine that the declines in long-term-care facilities merely reflect this broader pattern. To test this theory, we looked at the share of deaths that were linked to long-term-care facilities. Remember that these facilities are home to less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. For months, the share of deaths linked to long-term-care facilities bounced between 30 and 40 percent. In mid-January, it was still 29 percent. Then, over the past three weeks, the share of deaths associated with LTC outbreaks began to decline.
For the week ending February 11, long-term-care-linked deaths represented just 18 percent of total reported deaths in the states where we have these data. One way to think about this is that the share of deaths associated with long-term-care facilities has been cut in half since early January.
Cause and effect have been very difficult to establish in the United States throughout the pandemic. Our national patchwork of data sets and policies has confounded many simple analyses that try to explain why cases or deaths are rising or falling. But this week, we have clear evidence that the vaccines are saving lives in exactly the places where we would expect to see their effects show up first. We are—at long last and after so many failures—beginning to protect the most vulnerable.
This week, in Texas, a major crisis has unfolded. Record-cold temperatures locked up the state’s energy infrastructure, causing huge power outages. Local news reports suggest that this slowed or stopped vaccination distribution and administration in many parts of the state. Testing sites were also closed in some areas, like Hidalgo County.
It’s not just operations but also reporting that can be disrupted. Over the past year, we’ve seen that major storms can cause significant problems with the COVID-19 data that states report. Sometimes, these problems are easy to spot. A state will simply outright say: We cannot post data today. Other times, the wobbles a storm introduces into the data are not as visible.