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Will Unvaccinated Cuyahoga County Nursing Home Staff Quit Or Get The Shot?

The Biden administration will soon require federally funded nursing homes to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees to reduce the spread of the virus among elderly patients. Less than half of the staff are vaccinated at 26 of Cuyahoga County's 96 federally funded nursing homes. [By MOUii / Shutterstock]
The Biden administration will soon require federally funded nursing homes to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees to reduce the spread of the virus among elderly patients. Less than half of the staff are vaccinated at 26 of Cuyahoga County's 96 federally funded nursing homes. [By MOUii / Shutterstock]

In Cuyahoga County, nearly one-third of federally funded long-term care facilities report less than half of their employees are vaccinated as of Aug. 8, according to U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) data. 

The large number of unvaccinated workers has many worried that an impending federal mandate on COVID-19 vaccinations may result in major staff shortages if employees refuse to comply.

Skilled nursing facilities that receive funding from the federal agency are required to report their vaccination percentages for residents and staff.

Willows Health and Rehab Center in Euclid reported the lowest employee vaccination rate in Cuyahoga County at just 15.1 percent, according to CMS data.

At 30 facilities, 50 to 60 percent of employees are vaccinated, according to the data, and just 11 facilities in the county have more than 70 percent of staff vaccinated.

View the data for each facility in the chart below.

There was no vaccination data available for three facilities, and one facility, Sunrise Pointe Nursing & Rehab in Maple Heights, reported a 0.0 percentage for both staff and residents. Calls to Sunrise Pointe to verify this data were not immediately returned to Ideastream Public Media Thursday.

Of the 10 facilities with the lowest vaccination rates in Cuyahoga County – excluding the Maple Heights facility that reported 0.0 and the three facilities with no data – three are in Cleveland and two are in Oakwood Village.

The three facilities with no available data from CMS are Gardens of McGregor and Amasa Stone in East Cleveland, Fairfax Health Care Center in Cleveland and Westlake Rehab and Nursing Center in Westlake.

Mandates Coming Soon For Nursing Home Staff

President Biden recently announced skilled nursing facilities that receive federal funding will soon have to require employees to get vaccinated or lose their Medicare and Medicaid payments.

Statewide, about 54 percent of Ohio’s nursing home workers are vaccinated, according to the most recent data from CMS, said Peter Van Runkle, executive director of the Ohio Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities in the state.

The mandate could be devastating to nursing homes in Northeast Ohio, many of which have low vaccination rates and are already facing staffing challenges, Van Runkle said.

“This is going to destroy our staffing,” Van Runkle said. “COVID and the aftermath of that have drained away a lot of the staff and it’s been very difficult to replace them.”

Many workers will simply refuse to get vaccinated and quit, Van Runkle said. Some employees have already decided to quit after hearing the announcement last week, he said.

Van Runkle said he has heard from facilities in some urban areas that employees from communities of color are often hesitant to get the vaccine, he said. Historically, African Americans have experienced racial bias in the health care system and may distrust new medicines and vaccines, he said.

Employees from across the state have also cited fertility concerns and other unverified claims as reasons to not get the shot, Van Runkle said. None of the COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the U.S. have been shown to cause infertility, according to health officials.

“Probably the biggest thing that it comes down to is – ‘the government and my employer are not going to tell me what to do with my body,’” Van Runkle said.

While Van Runkle supports the vaccine and said more employee vaccinations will undoubtedly help protect elderly patients from the virus, he said the decision to mandate the shot was hastily made and will cause complications for nearly every nursing home in the state.

“Is it more dangerous to have no staff or very little staff, or is it more dangerous to have some staff … who are not vaccinated?” Van Runkle said. “What is really better for the patient? We really feel like the administration at the federal level just really didn’t weigh that out.”

Van Runkle and other nursing home advocates are asking federal officials to consider a testing alternative to the mandate, which would allow workers who do not want to get vaccinated to be regularly tested for the virus to keep their jobs.

Currently, unvaccinated nursing home workers in Ohio are required to be tested twice a week, Van Runkle said. Testing could become more frequent as an alternative to vaccination, he said.

There will likely be medical and religious exemptions included in the mandate, Van Runkle said.

The official federal policy will likely come out within the next month, so until then, staff members can only speculate what the exact rules and penalties will be, he added. While the President threatened to cut Medicare and Medicaid funding from facilities that do not comply, Van Runkle doubts that will be the case.

“The reality of that is – that’s closing the facility, and that’s requiring all of the residents to move. And is that really better for them?” he said.

Instead, Van Runkle expects facilities that do not comply will likely have to pay a penalty fee.

It is also not yet clear if the mandate will apply to all employees – including those who work in dining, activities, housekeeping and other non-medical positions in nursing homes – or just health care workers, like nurses and nurse assistants, he said.

By and large, the vast majority of nursing home residents in Cuyahoga County have been vaccinated, according to CMS data.

Nursing home residents and staff were in the first priority group for the vaccine in Ohio, as long-term care facilities were hit especially hard throughout the pandemic.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.