AARP: Care homes should require shots

By Tammara Fogle | August 31, 2021

The Active Age

AARP is calling for mandatory vaccinations of Kansas nursing home staff and residents, citing a significant rise in COVID-19 cases among nursing home staff and residents.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has ordered that nursing homes require all employees to be vaccinated or lose federal Medicare and Medicaid funding.

“The high COVID death rates of residents and staff in nursing homes has been a national disgrace,” said Ernest Kutzley, AARP Kansas advocacy director. “As the new variants are emerging, facilities cannot let preventable problems be repeated. The key is to increase vaccinations, and do it now.”

“AARP is calling on nursing homes to require vaccinations for both staff and residents,” Kutzley said. “The low levels of staff vaccinations in particular create an unacceptable level of risk, since the disease spreads so easily in these environments. And facilities must ensure all residents are vaccinated, including providing vaccines to newly admitted residents. Facilities must be open and transparent with how they are progressing toward the vital goal of vaccination for all staff and residents.”

As of June 30, 2021, 1,994 residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in Kansas have died from COVID-19 – representing around 39% of deaths, even though less than 1% of the population lives in these facilities.

While vaccination rates had increased several percentage points in the past month, they remain low compared to goals, at around 86.5% among residents and 56% among staff. Only 14.4% of Kansas nursing homes had at least 75% of staff vaccinated, which is the benchmark goal the industry has set for vaccinations in facilities.

Under the new nursing home policy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will develop regulations to require vaccinations of nursing home staffers as a condition of participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs.

“I’m using the power of the federal government as a payer of health care costs to ensure we reduce those risks for our most vulnerable seniors,” President Joe Biden said during a news conference Wednesday.

“If you visit, live or work in a nursing home, you should not be at a high risk of contracting COVID from unvaccinated employees,” Biden added.

Neither Kansas nor Missouri has mandated COVID-19 vaccinations in nursing homes, but one chain with several locations in Kansas is requiring its employees to get vaccinated this fall or face dismissal.

Associations that represent Missouri and Kansas’ long-term care facilities said they support and encourage vaccinations among staff and residents, but expressed concern that a mandate may impact staffing levels.

“One member said to me, specifically, when they heard of the mandate, ‘That we’ve now gone from crisis to catastrophe,’” said Nikki Strong, the executive director of the Missouri Health Care Association, which represents over 65 percent of Missouri’s licensed skilled nursing care facilities.

The organization’s Kansas counterpart has yet to discuss the issue, its president and CEO, Linda MowBray, said in an email.

“Staffing is already at a crisis level, and singling out nursing homes will only compound the issue,” MowBray said.

The Kansas Reflector contributed to this article.