Iowa Nursing Home Executives Fear COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate Hunts Workers



Nursing Director Katie Candia gives Michon Scott, a licensed practical nurse, a COVID-19 booster shot at West Ridge Care Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, October 19, 2021. The West Ridge Care Center administrator wants everything his staff be vaccinated, but like many administrators of long-term care centers across the country, he strongly opposes a mandate for vaccination. (Rebecca F. Miller / The Gazette)

Nursing Director Katie Candia gives Michon Scott, a licensed practical nurse, a COVID-19 booster shot at West Ridge Care Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, October 19, 2021. The West Ridge Care Center administrator wants everything his staff be vaccinated, but like many administrators of long-term care centers across the country, he strongly opposes a mandate for vaccination. (Rebecca F. Miller / The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS – As an employee of a long-term care facility, Pam Guilford was one of the first Iowans to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in February.

At first, she wasn’t sure she wanted the new vaccine, Guilford admits. She wondered if there were any long term side effects that we don’t know about?

“I’m not an anti-vaxxer,” Guilford said. “I think what bothers me are people who are hesitant about vaccines, we call them anti-vaccines. This is not the case. I have had other vaccines and I believe in vaccines.

She decided to get shot after all because of her job. Guilford, a former retirement home administrator, is director of admissions and marketing for Evergreen Estates in Cedar Rapids. Residents at his facility are more likely to face poor outcomes if they were infected with the novel coronavirus, Guilford said. It eventually got the better of his hesitation.

“When working with an older population, you have to take other precautions to keep them safe,” she said. “This is the job I signed up for, taking care of the elderly who need my help. If part of my help is making sure I don’t give them anything, then this is what I need to do.

As of March 2020, federal officials estimate the disease has killed approximately 2,500 nursing home residents in Iowa. And the virus continues to make its way into the facilities.

As the country continues to experience outbreaks of COVID-19, nursing home leaders across the state are stressing the importance of more employees getting vaccinated. But federal vaccine requirements for employees could create a crisis, they say.

If the Biden administration goes ahead with a plan to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for nursing home staff across the country, long-term care industry officials from l ‘Iowa say they expect dozens of workers to quit their jobs rather than get vaccinated.

It can be nearly impossible to find replacement workers in this scenario, they say. The industry has long faced challenges in recruiting and retaining health and other support staff, especially in rural areas.

“The scope of the mandate announced several weeks ago is very problematic for the situation of nursing home staff in Iowa,” said Brent Willett, president and CEO of the Iowa Health Care Association.

Mandate scheduled for the end of October

In August, the Biden administration announced that nursing homes receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding must require staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Institutions that do not comply risk losing federal funds.

The regulations would apply to approximately 15,000 nursing homes and their 1.6 million employees across the country. A total of 31,998 employees – including full-time and part-time – work in nursing homes across Iowa, according to the Iowa Health Care Association. Of that number, 22,418 were fully vaccinated as of October 3. That’s a vaccination rate of 70.1%.

It is not known how many of the remaining 30 percent of unvaccinated workers would quit their jobs if forced to receive the jab, Willett said. But even if some leave the industry, it “exasperates the already severe workforce crisis” the industry is facing.

Among the three facilities that make up Evergreen Estates at Cedar Rapids, the vaccination rate is about 92 percent of staff, said president and CEO Pat Giorgio. She expects to lose the remaining 8% if the mandate goes into effect.

“At a time when we have a labor shortage, the mandate is counterproductive,” said Giorgio. “I understand the intention and I can stick to the intention, but I believe the results can lead to greater challenges for the workforce. “

In the worst-case scenario, nursing homes could end up without sufficient staff to care for residents, which also poses serious risks to these people.

“So are residents really safer? They don’t get better care if there are fewer workers to take care of people, ”said Richard Curphey, administrator of the West Ridge Care Center at Cedar Rapids.

Nursing home leaders want vaccinated staff, but no warrants

The West Ridge Care Center, an independent 60-bed facility, commissioned the vaccine for its nearly 80 staff earlier this year, Curphey said. He lost a handful of staff in the process, but by October the nursing home had a 100% vaccination rate.

Although the vaccine is mandatory at his facility, Curphey opposes a general mandate from the federal government. This is because federal officials are not taking the important step that the West Ridge Care Center took first.

Curphey said he and other executives spent weeks chatting with staff to answer questions and respond to each individual’s hesitations. Although time-consuming, this strategy would be a better solution in the effort to improve the rate in nursing homes, he said.

Giorgio, who always speaks with staff members about the importance of getting the vaccine, agreed. “A warrant is not the answer. Education is the answer, ”she said.

The Iowa Health Care Association, along with other national advocacy organizations, has called on the federal government to instead allocate resources to facilities for education campaigns and other efforts to combat reluctance to vaccinate. The association also called for additional funding of $ 6 billion to ease the labor shortage.

“This is a very complex problem that requires a comprehensive solution,” said Willett.

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