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Advocates, unions say vaccine mandate makes nursing homes, other facilities safer

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
The Biden administration has ordered all health care facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid to make sure their workers are fully vaccinated by Jan 4. The rule applies to about 17 million health care workers nationwide.

Advocates for nursing home residents and union leaders say they support a federal rule requiring health care workers nationwide to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Biden administration announced the regulation Thursday. It requires about 17 million health care workers employed in facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid to get their first vaccine dose or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Dec. 5. Workers must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4.

The new rule would make nursing homes and other facilities safer for residents and patients, said Marjorie Moore, executive director of VOYCE, a St. Louis nonprofit that advocates for nursing home residents and their families.

“One of the things that has been really hard for long-term care residents has been since facilities opened back up to visitors back in March, residents still have have had to undergo quarantines and lockdowns periodically again as a staff member has come in with COVID or as a resident has contracted it from somebody,” Moore said. “Having more people in our community and more people on their care teams vaccinated. That means that less residents will have to be separated from their families.”

Only 56% of nursing home workers in Missouri are fully vaccinated. The federal rule clarifies a previous announcement from the Biden administration this summer and applies to health care workers across different fields.

“This makes sure that all health care workers are being treated the same, so it keeps long-term care on a more even playing field because we are seeing historic shortages,” Moore said. “We've had a staffing crisis in long-term care for a very long time, and it's only gotten worse, and there was a real concern that a vaccine mandate just for long term care would make it even worse.”

But the announcement still may lead to more staff shortages in long-term care facilities nationwide, Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living, said in a statement.

“While we support the overall intent of this CMS policy, we are concerned that the execution will exacerbate an already dire workforce crisis in long-term care,” Parkinson said. “A hard deadline with no resources for providers or glide path for unvaccinated workers is likely to push too many out the door and ultimately threaten residents’ access to long-term care.”

Union leaders agree that employers need to ensure workers have the resources to get the shot. The mandate is a good step, but employers must work with staff, especially if workers feel sick after the shot, said Lenny Jones, vice president and director of SEIU Healthcare in Missouri.

Jones said employers also need to ensure nursing home workers are paid a higher wage to increase retention.

“Workers need to be assured that if they do get sick, that they get paid time off after getting vaccinated,” he said. “That was another big reason that we found that workers were less willing to get vaccinated, because they couldn't afford to miss a day of work without getting paid.”

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.