Experts worry that mandatory COVID vaccinations could hurt an already struggling nursing home industry

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CLEVELAND (WJW) – Concern continues to grow surrounding a proposed federal mandate that would require nursing home employees to get COVID vaccinations. 

The consequences of this type of mandate could hit an already struggling industry, officials say.

“The word is out and so people who are against being vaccinated are looking for jobs where they don’t have to be and there are lots of them,” said Pete Van Runkle, the Executive Director of the Ohio Healthcare Association. “We are going to lose staff, which means our residents are going to lose care and we may even lose facilities.”

President Biden announced Wednesday he would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to require COVID-19 vaccinations for all nursing home employees. Otherwise, federal funding, including Medicare and Medicaid, could be withheld, impacting more than 15,000 nursing homes.

“Vaccination rates among nursing home staff trail the rest of the country,” Biden said.

In Ohio, Van Runkle said about 47% of skilled nursing home staff is unvaccinated and the industry cannot afford to possibly lose that many employees or the funding needed to operate facilities successfully. 

“Just Medicare and Medicaid is three-quarters of their patients, so you take out those three quarters, you know they’re not going to survive,” said Van Runkle.

He said many skilled nursing employees already undergo frequent COVID testing and wear masks routinely in addition to other PPE as needed. He said to some of his members, it justifies avoiding the shot.

“They are of a mind, as many people in Ohio are, that you’re not putting that into my body and I definitely don’t want the government telling me that’s what has to happen because I don’t trust the government, so that’s what we have to deal with. That’s just the reality,” he said.

The president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Association for Assisted living released a statement Wednesday, arguing the administration’s actions did not go far enough.

“The government should not single out one provider group for mandatory vaccinations. Vaccination mandates for health care personnel should be applied to all health care settings. Without this, nursing homes face a disastrous workforce challenge,” said Mark Parkinson. “Focusing only on nursing homes will cause vaccine-hesitant workers to flee to other health care providers and leave many centers without adequate staff to care for residents. It will make an already difficult workforce shortage even worse.”

Prentice Thompson, the Embassy Healthcare COO who operates facilities across Ohio, including one in Solon, said in a statement, “We understand the intent of this rule, however, we are very concerned that nursing homes are singled out once again during what is the largest staffing crisis in our history. This move will potentially push current unvaccinated employees to leave the nursing home industry and transition to other healthcare industries such as hospitals, assisted living facilities, home health care and physician offices.”

Many skilled nursing home facilities declined to comment as they await forthcoming information from the Biden administration.

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