The Mercury News

Nursing home operator mandates COVID-19 vaccinatio­n for workers

- By Bernard Condon and Matt Sedensky

NEW YORK >> The U.S. nursing home industry’s resistance to forcing workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 for fear that too many of them might quit began to crack this week when its biggest player announced its employees must get the shot to keep their jobs.

The new requiremen­t at Genesis Healthcare, which has 70,000 employees at nearly 400 nursing homes and senior communitie­s,

is the clearest sign yet that owners may be willing to risk an exodus at already dangerousl­y understaff­ed facilities to quickly vaccinate the 40% of workers still resisting shots and fend off the surging delta variant.

Some experts are calling for mandatory vaccinatio­ns at nursing homes, warning that unprotecte­d staff members are endangerin­g residents. Even residents who have been inoculated are vulnerable because many are elderly and frail, with weak immune systems.

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, and 202 died, according to federal data.

“It’s so easy now to say, ‘Well, Genesis is doing it. Now we’ll do it,’ ” said Brian Lee, who leads Families for Better Care, an advocacy group for long-term care residents. “This is a big domino to fall.”

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of health law at

Georgetown University, said he likewise foresees a “snowball effect.” He said resisting vaccinatio­n mandates at this point is “unconscion­able.” Some local government­s are taking the decision out of the industry’s hands, with Massachuse­tts and Denver announcing mandatory vaccinatio­ns at nursing homes this week.

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 — the most since midFebruar­y — and has led to several outbreaks in nursing homes and sent 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 large numbers of workers will leave in protest. Nearly a quarter of nursing homes are already short of nurses or nurse’s aides.

But Associated Press interviews this past week with managers at 10 mostly smaller nursing home operations across the nation that are requiring vaccines found that the threat of workers quitting en masse over the shots may be overblown.

After Canterbury Court in Atlanta announced a mandate in January, 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, only 10 of 180 workers quit, and McNeil said Canterbury’s nursing home, independen­t living and assisted living facilities have reported no new COVID-19 cases since February.

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