08/20/2021 / By Nolan Barton
Genesis Healthcare, the largest nursing home operator in the U.S., recently announced that its employees must be vaccinated against the coronavirus (COVID-19) to keep their jobs. It has 70,000 employees at nearly 400 nursing homes and senior communities across the country.
The Pennsylvania-based company is giving its employees until Aug. 23 to get their first dose.
Unvaccinated nursing home workers fear that the move may set a precedent for others in the industry. “It’s so easy now to say, ‘Well, Genesis is doing it. Now we’ll do it.’ This is a big domino to fall,” said Brian Lee, who leads Families for Better Care, an advocacy group for long-term care residents.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of health law at Georgetown University, likewise foresees a “snowball effect.”
The new requirement is the clearest sign yet that owners may be willing to risk an exodus at dangerously understaffed facilities to quickly vaccinate the 40 percent of workers still resisting COVID-19 vaccinations. Most nursing home operators have refrained from making vaccines mandatory out of fear of losing more employees.
Some health experts are calling for mandatory vaccinations at nursing homes, warning that unprotected staff members are endangering residents. Even residents who have been vaccinated are vulnerable because many are elderly and frail with weak immune systems.
According to federal data, more than 1,250 nursing home residents across the U.S. were infected with COVID-19 in the week ending July 25 – double the number from the week earlier. (Related: Coronavirus outbreak ensues following vaccination of residents at nursing home.)
Some local governments have taken the decision out of the industry’s hands, with Massachusetts and Denver recently announcing mandatory vaccinations at nursing homes.
The question has become more urgent as the highly contagious delta variant drives up new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. to about 90,000 a day, on average, and sends hospitalizations surging in states like Florida and Louisiana to the highest levels since the pandemic began.
Despite the terrible toll taken by the disease at nursing homes, many of the nation’s 15,000 such institutions have rejected mandatory vaccinations for fear that most of their workers will quit. Nearly a quarter of nursing homes are already short of nurses or nurse’s aides.
But some smaller nursing home operations across the nation that require vaccines found that the threat of workers quitting over the COVID-19 vaccine might have been a little overblown.
In January, Canterbury Court in Atlanta announced the vaccine mandate to its employees. The company’s CEO Debi McNeil was so fearful of a “massive walkout” that she brought in medical experts to talk to workers, met with holdouts one-on-one and invited staff to gather in the community room for meetings that occasionally got heated. In the end, 10 of 180 workers quit.
“It was a gamble that paid off for us,” McNeil said. “I thought more people would have mandated it by now.”
At Jewish Home Family in Rockleigh, New Jersey, five of 527 workers at its nursing home and assisted-living facilities quit. Westminster Village in Bloomington, Illinois, lost only two out of 250.
Some workers have rejected the vaccine because they think it was rushed into development and is unsafe, or they feel protected because they already got COVID-19.
“It’s too soon to put that crap in my body,” said Christina Chiger, a nurse’s aide at a nursing home in Tampa, Florida. “It took how many years to perfect the polio vaccine? This was done in months.”
Others have been swayed to take the vaccine after seeking professional advice.
“I was kind of worried, but I talked to the doctors and they put my mind at ease,” said Michaela Murray, a nurse’s aide at Hanceville Nursing & Rehab Center in Alabama, which had six of 260 workers quit after making vaccinations mandatory.
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