Make the COVID vaccine mandatory for workers in nursing homes

Just 55% of staff in the nation’s long-term care facilities have been vaccinated. There’s no good reason for any worker who is medically able to be vaccinated to refuse the shot.

SHARE Make the COVID vaccine mandatory for workers in nursing homes
COVID-19 vaccines ready to be administered at a pop-up vaccine site.

COVID-19 vaccines ready to be administered at a pop-up vaccine site. It’s time for nursing home operators to make vaccination mandatory for staff, the Editorial Board writes.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

No institution in our society has been hit harder by the pandemic than nursing homes, which during the height of the pandemic last year accounted for an estimated 40% of all deaths from COVID-19.

Reports of new nursing home cases and deaths have slowed in recent months, but the latest federal data from June show the stunning toll: 657,457 COVID-19 cases and 133,210 deaths among residents of long-term care facilities, and 586,899 cases and 1,949 deaths among workers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized the risk back in December, recommending then that states put long-term care residents and staff at the front of the line for limited supplies of the new vaccines.

“When we got to vaccination time, this was everyone’s highest priority,” as Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady told us. “There’s no one I’d rather see vaccinated than someone who lives or works in a long-term care facility.”

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We agree. We’re thrilled to see the progress on getting the elderly and other nursing home residents vaccinated. Nationwide, an average of 78% of residents in individual nursing homes have gotten their shots, federal data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services show. Illinois is doing even better, with 80.5% of residents vaccinated.

But for all that progress, we’re alarmed that just 55% of nursing home workers nationwide — whose job duties include bathing, dressing and feeding residents, the kind of close contact that makes it easier to catch COVID — have been vaccinated.

Illinois is doing no better, at 55.06%.

That’s an especially poor showing given that nursing home trade groups set a goal back in February to have 75% of staff in every facility get their shot by June. In Chicago, only one in three — 26 of 78 — of nursing facilities has reached that 75% vaccination target, Arwady said.

It’s time for every nursing home operator, here in Illinois and elsewhere, to do the right thing for the health of everyone involved:

Make the vaccine mandatory for employees, as the Chicago Department of Public Health recommends — “very, very strongly,” in Arwady’s words — and as many hospitals and health care facilities have already done.

“What we saw was that [the vaccine] was a harder sell in nursing homes than in hospitals or other health care facilities,” Arwady said. “Because nursing homes were so hard-hit, there was this sense of ‘I’ve already been touched by COVID, so I’ve made it.’”

No good argument against a mandatory vaccine

Enough of the vaccine hesitancy, which threatens all our hard-won progress in beating back COVID-19. The vaccines have been proven safe and highly effective. Americans have ready access to vaccines — free — while dozens of poorer countries around the world are begging for more doses, just as a new, more contagious variant threatens to spark more outbreaks.

There’s simply no excuse for anyone who is medically able to be vaccinated to refuse the shot, all the more so if their job involves working with the elderly, the disabled and other vulnerable populations.

We understand the argument made by some nursing home operators, who face a constant battle to attract and keep workers for lower-skilled, low-paid jobs such as certified nursing assistants who attend to the daily needs of residents.

Hiring has been made more difficult by the pandemic. Turnover in the field has always been high. Some operators fear that a vaccine mandate would drive away potential employees.

We suggest paying them more — in Illinois, a CNA makes an average of just $30,568 a year — but make them get the shot.

Consider this data from the CDC: In Chicago, 71% of COVID-19 cases — 447 of 627 — reported among nursing home residents and staff between December 2020 and March 2021 occurred among the unvaccinated.

Ninety of those 447 people were hospitalized. Fourteen died.

This editorial board recently argued that the COVID vaccine should be mandatory for staff in Illinois prisons, another setting that has been ravaged by the disease. Fewer than half of prison employees in our state have been vaccinated.

Nursing home operators must do no less.

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