Could staffing shortage at nursing homes hit crisis level with vaccine mandate?

Published: Oct. 11, 2021 at 8:16 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - A federal vaccine mandate is looming for nursing home staff, and local facilities worry this will deepen the staffing crisis they’ve been facing for years.

19 Investigates found some nursing homes in Northeast Ohio could be at risk of closing as a staffing crisis continues to worsen during the pandemic.

That could affect the type of care your loved ones may be able to get in nursing homes.

Some smaller facilities are family-owned businesses.

Welcome Nursing Home in Oberlin.
Welcome Nursing Home in Oberlin.(Welcome Nursing Home)

We found history runs deep at Welcome Nursing Home in Oberlin.

“This is a family business, my grandparents started the facility back in 1945,” said Administrator Jill Herron.

She runs the 99-bed skilled nursing facility with her sister.

They have about 135 staff members including contractors.

“They were at the frontlines during this covid crisis when we had very minimal PPE, we didn’t have tests, we were literally flying by the seat of our pants, they came in knowing the risks,” she said.

Herron said some employees have been with them for decades.

But soon, their vaccine status could change that, after President Biden recently announced nursing homes dependent on Medicaid and Medicare funding must vaccinate all staff.

“I don’t know that I will be able to staff my building if the mandate is a strict mandate,” Herron said. She worries not enough of her staff will get vaccinated, even if it means losing their jobs.

“If we could wave a magic wand and say everyone’s vaccinated, just magically, we’d do that, of course, we want to keep our residents safe,” she said. Ohio’s nursing home residents have been the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

There have been 7,874 reported deaths of nursing home residents in Ohio since April 2020, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

You can access their coronavirus dashboard here.

Most nursing home residents across Ohio welcomed the vaccine.

Herron said about 97% of their residents got the shots.

But her staff was much more skeptical. Just over 50% got vaccinated.

And only six out of 25 nurses got the shots.

“I have been hoping that as time went by and we all became more comfortable and the numbers got stronger with the vaccine rates across the country, that more people would be interested,” Herron said.

But that hasn’t happened.

So unvaccinated staff continue to get tested for COVID-19 twice a week as required in Ohio.

Herron said testing and continued use of PPE, along with vaccinated residents, has helped mitigate the virus.

We asked her if she could afford to lose five or maybe 15 workers.

“Oh, there’s no way. There’s no way, I cannot afford to lose those that have decided the vaccine is not for them. I honestly don’t know what I would do Sara,” Herron said.

In Ohio, 40-45 percent of nursing home staffers are not vaccinated, according to the Ohio Health Care Association.

They estimate that’s about 40-50,000 unvaccinated people working in nursing homes statewide. Nursing homes across the state are educating staff about the benefits.

But some people won’t change their minds.

And it could cost them and the families of nursing home residents.

“This could be the next wave of a pandemic, a pandemic of no working health care providers,” Herron said.

19 Investigates found staffing shortages in nursing homes have been a problem since before the pandemic.

And now some employees are already leaving for other jobs offering higher wages in a competitive job market.

But because they get federal reimbursements, nursing homeowners say their hands are tied when it comes to wages.

And they’re basically on a fixed income.

“One of our biggest competitors which has never been an issue in the past is Cedar Point because they were able to offer a price point, a wage exceeding what we were able to provide, so some staff left and went and worked for Cedar Point,” Herron said.

If nursing homes statewide lose thousands of more workers because of the vaccine mandate, advocates said some facilities, especially smaller and rural ones, could shut down.

Others may accept fewer residents and have waitlists for families in need.

We asked Herron how dire circumstances could get.

“If they produce a 100% drop-dead mandate where anybody that’s not vaccinated cannot continue to work in facilities, that is going to be catastrophic to our health care system. I mean, catastrophic. I can’t think of another word,” she said.

More than one-third of nursing homes nationwide are very concerned about having to shut down their facilities, according to a national survey from American Health Care Association.

And nearly every nursing home is facing a staffing shortage. The federal vaccine mandate applies to other health care workers too.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is expected to come out with its rules for the vaccine mandate sometime this month.

We’ll keep you updated.

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