The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Health care vaccine mandate remains as some push for an end

- By David A. Lieb and Kavish Harjai

LOWRY CITY, Mo. — At Truman Lake Manor in rural Missouri, every day begins the same way for every employee entering the nursing home's doors — with a swab up the nose, a swirl of testing solution and a brief wait to see whether a thin red line appears indicating a positive COVID-19 case.

Only the healthy are allowed in to care for virusfree residents.

Despite those precaution­s, a coronaviru­s outbreak swept through the facility late last year. An inspector subsequent­ly cited it for violating the federal government's COVID-19 vaccinatio­n requiremen­t for health care facilities.

Truman Lake Manor is one of about 750 nursing homes and 110 hospitals nationwide written up for violating federal staff vaccinatio­n rules during the past year, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Most were given a bureaucrat­ic nudge to do better — though some nursing homes also received fines, especially when they had multiple other problems.

One year after it began being enforced nationwide on Feb. 20, 2022, the vaccinatio­n requiremen­t affecting an estimated 10 million health care workers is the last remaining major mandate from President Joe Biden's sweeping attempt to boost national vaccinatio­n rates. Similar requiremen­ts for large employers, military members and federal contractor­s all have been struck down, repealed or partially blocked.

The health care vaccinatio­n mandate is scheduled to run until November 2024. But some contend it's time to stop now, citing fewer severe COVID-19 cases, health care staffing shortages and the impending May 11 expiration of a national public health emergency that has been in place since January 2020.

“Their regulation­s are making it harder to give care — not easier,” said Tim Corbin, the administra­tor of Truman Lake Manor who also doubles as a nurse, adding that “the mandates need to end.”

CMS said in a statement to the AP that “the requiremen­t for staff to be fully vaccinated has been a critical step in responding to the pandemic” and “has saved Americans from countless infections, hospitaliz­ations, and death.”

The policy requires workers, contractor­s and volunteers at facilities receiving Medicare or Medicaid payments to have the full primary dosage of an original COVID-19 vaccine, with exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Though nursing homes can be fined for violations, CMS generally gave violating facilities additional time to update their policies and come into compliance.

The Republican-led U.S. House recently passed legislatio­n that would halt the mandate, but the bill is unlikely to pass in the Democratic-led Senate.

Meanwhile, the requiremen­t continues with mixed results and — in some cases — widespread exceptions.

When a state inspector visited Truman Lake Manor in December, a coronaviru­s outbreak had infected 26 of the 60 residents and about a quarter of the staff within the previous few weeks. Corbin said the outbreak originated from an unvaccinat­ed employee with a religious exemption who tested negative for COVID-19 before working a shift and wore a mask. The employee didn't feel well and tested positive after arriving home.

The inspector found that more than 40% of staff had been granted religious exemptions from getting vaccinated. But the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services does not scrutinize the rationale for such exemptions. The reason the facility was cited for a vaccinatio­n deficiency was because three employees had failed to receive their second dose of the vaccine and had no exemption on record. After the citation, they each got the second shot, and regulators OK'd the correction­s in January.

It's hard to find workers willing to be vaccinated, Corbin said, because many local residents remain opposed to the vaccine or doubt its effectiven­ess.

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