Nursing Homes Grateful for High Vaccine Rates, Stay of Mandate
While public health experts advocate widespread vaccinations as the best way to end the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine mandates have been vehemently opposed by workers in a large number of different employment sectors and many politicians.
The Arkansas Legislature passed a ban on vaccine mandates as a condition of employment, putting the state at odds with the federal government that had instituted far-ranging mandates including the threat of losing Medicare and Medicaid funding for lack of vaccine compliance at health care facilities including nursing homes and hospitals. Arkansas was one of nine states that challenged the mandates.
On Nov. 30, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction to the mandates from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that would have required Medicare and Medicaid health-provider staff members to receive one COVID-19 vaccine dose by Dec. 6 or face loss of funding.
Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association (AHCA), said the majority of long-term care patients in Arkansas depend on Medicare and Medicaid for funding, and nursing homes could not have withstood a block of Medicaid and Medicare funding.
“AHCA and its membership welcome the ruling from the federal district court in Missouri placing a hold on the CMS vaccine mandate,” Bunch said. “The decision recognizes the obstacles the mandate would place on providers, especially in rural states like Arkansas. Simply put, while member facilities support vaccination as an established tool to prevent outbreaks, serious illness and hospitalizations, the mandate could have closed the doors of some providers who are already struggling with staffing without the mandate. AHCA also thanks Attorney General Leslie Rutledge for joining the lawsuit.”
Some Arkansas nursing homes mandated the vaccines, and some provided incentives to get vaccinated. But Bunch said most nursing homes have been using the strategy of educating and informing employees, along with making vaccines available. And that has been successful in giving Arkansas the highest vaccine rates of residents and staff in all of the Southeastern Conference footprint. The SEC includes the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
“We are proud in Arkansas of our facilities, and our vaccination rate is still the highest in all of the SEC states,” Bunch said. “As of the first week of December, 77.2 percent of staff and 87 percent of residents in Arkansas long-term care facilities are fully vaccinated.”
Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, said nursing homes are now in a much better position to prevent COVID infections and deaths.
“Our Arkansas nursing homes have made significant strides improving vaccination rates of both their residents and personnel,” Thompson said. “That offers more protection for these facilities where COVID-19 has really shown the effects it can have on individuals. I would encourage family members placing loved ones in nursing homes to ask about vaccination rates prior to placement.”
There have been reports of some nursing home residents testing positive for COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. Thompson said from the very outset of the pandemic, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of people infected with COVID did not have major symptoms.
“Second, in those who have been vaccinated, their immunity may be waning if they have not gotten a booster shot,” Thompson said. “We are seeing that vaccinated people who get breakthrough infections have fewer symptoms. Everyone does now need the booster shot to get immunity back up and be optimally primed.”
The stay on the federal mandate is a relief to employers worried about maintaining adequate staffing levels. Some hospitals lost staff after vaccine mandates, an unwelcome development at a time when hospitals are struggling to maintain adequate staff. Bunch said there are some long-term care facilities in Arkansas currently limiting admissions due to limited staffing, but the majority of facilities are not in this situation.
Overall, this has been an historically tough and expensive time for nursing homes all over the country.
“This has been a very difficult and challenging time as the pandemic has disproportionately affected long-term care facilities,” Bunch said. “However, we are hopeful that as cases are down and visitation is open in all facilities once again, things will continue to improve.”