SOUTHERN INDIANA — The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid is expected to issue a regulation to start as early as next month requiring nursing homes to ensure staff are vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk losing funding, following an announcement Wednesday by President Joe Biden.
And while representatives of some Southern Indiana nursing facilities say the mandate will ensure better protection for those at highest risk for developing serious complications from the disease, it may also lead to issues such as staffing shortages during an already-existing nursing shortage.
The Indiana Department of Health reported that as of July 25, 52.8% of nursing home staff statewide had been fully vaccinated, or 26,104 employees. Another 991, or 2%, were partially vaccinated at that point with 45.2% unvaccinated.
In Southern Indiana, there are 11 registered nursing home facilities in Clark County and 12 in Floyd. Of these, six in Clark County and seven in Floyd County had staff vaccination information listed on the state department of health website.
The rates among Floyd County facilities listed ranged from 24.6% of staff vaccinated at Diversicare of Providence in New Albany, to 78.4% at Villas of Guerin Woods in Georgetown. In Clark County, the rates ranged from 39.4% fully vaccinated staff at Westminster Healthcare Center to 76.4% at Wedgewood Healthcare Center, both in Clarksville.
David Napierskiy, vice president of operations at Retirement Housing Foundation, which operates Westminster Healthcare Center and other facilities in Indiana, California, Florida, Missouri and Washington, said although the new regulation isn’t yet official, the company is taking steps to adhere to it and be “fully compliant in all our vaccinations for all medical workers, vendors and anybody else associated or else they will not be able to work.”
Those unvaccinated at the company’s facilities have more protocol, including that they have to have more frequent COVID testing. When the pandemic began, the company also changed its policy to not allow staff to work for other companies, to ensure resident safety.
Napierskiy added that throughout the pandemic, the company has urged staff to get vaccinations by providing regular information on vaccine safety and bringing in consultants to review the pros and cons of vaccination.
“We continue to pour that information out to staff to help educate them,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to open their eyes themselves...here’s the data, please review it, please look at it.”
Napierskiy provided information Thursday that showed a bigger vaccination rate than the state data from July 25 — 94 of 139 staff have been vaccinated, although this also includes vendors, not just clinical staff.
He said the company endorses the vaccine for residents and staff because “we want to make sure that we have a safe environment for our employees as well as our residents,” he said.
Napierskiy said the company has watched to see if other larger companies would issue mandates for staff, and said the federal mandate helps protect against employees who don’t want to be vaccinated finding employment at another facility. But, he said he and others know that some workers will simply leave.
“Our biggest concern is that there are staff that are so anti-vax that they’ll just leave the industry altogether,” he said. “With the severe nursing shortages we’re all facing right now, that’s alarming.”
Others say the mandate should not be limited to nursing facilities only but all of health care. A representative for CommuniCare, which operates Wedgewood Healthcare Center, referred the News and Tribune to a statement issued Wednesday by Zach Cattell, president of the Indiana Health Care Association and Indiana Center for Assisted Living. In the statement, Cattell says that while the organization “appreciates the [Biden administration’s] continued efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates across the nation,” the action to mandate nursing facilities alone “does not go far enough.”
“Several Indiana nursing home providers have already instituted employer mandates for COVID-19 vaccination and many more are planning to roll them out when the vaccines are fully authorized by the FDA.
“...However, a federal mandate that applies only to nursing facilities will cause vaccine-hesitant workers to flee to other health care providers that do not have to follow a mandate and leave many facilities without adequate staff to care for residents. We ask the Biden administration to work directly with our providers and national association partners to address this challenge.”
Health care staff were the first to become eligible for the vaccine when Pfizer BioNTech became available in December, followed by Moderna. Indiana residents age 70 and older, which includes many of the nursing home residents, became eligible in January.