MADISON (WKOW) -- President Joe Biden announced a new vaccine requirement for many nursing homes Wednesday, but nursing home organizations are concerned that may drive away critically-needed staff.
The requirement from the Biden administration applies to long-term care facilities that receive federal funding from Medicare and Medicaid. All staff must be vaccinated, or the funding would disappear. The mandate could take effect as soon as next month.
"We urge and even beg all health care personnel to get vaccinated," said Rick Abrams, CEO of the Wisconsin Health Care Association and Wisconsin Center for Assisted Living (WHCA/WiCAL). "It's the right thing to do for the person's safety, their family's safety, the residents they care for -- their safety, and the community at large."
Despite supporting vaccinations, Abrams says a federal mandate for long-term care staff misses the mark. He's concerned that for people who've held out this long in the pandemic, a mandate will only serve to backfire.
"We have employees who are dug in, basically saying, 'I am not getting vaccinated,' and a federal mandate will unlikely change their minds," Abrams said.
The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL), the national organization with which the WHCA/WiCAL is associated, felt that the new vaccine mandate unfairly targeted long-term care staff.
In a statement, that organization said:
“The government should not single out one provider group for mandatory vaccinations. Vaccination mandates for health care personnel should be applied to all health care settings. Without this, nursing homes face a disastrous workforce challenge. Focusing only on nursing homes will cause vaccine hesitant workers to flee to other health care providers and leave many centers without adequate staff to care for residents... We look forward to working with the Administration in the coming days to develop solutions to overcome this challenge.”Mark Parkinson
President and CEO, AHCA/NCAL
Abrams says nursing homes in Wisconsin can't afford shortages right now.
"If they exit the facilities, it's not only going to exacerbate the labor crisis that our facilities currently face, but it's also going to jeopardize the high quality of care that our most vulnerable and sickest residents in Wisconsin deserve," he said.
During his announcement Wednesday, President Biden indicated he felt strongly that a mandate was the right move.
"These steps are all about keeping people safe and out of harm's way," Biden said. "If you visit, live or work in a nursing home, you should not be at a high risk for contracting COVID from unvaccinated employees."
Data from Wisconsin's Department of Health Services shows the number of COVID-19 investigations in long-term care facilities has increased each month since June.
Abrams says just shy of 60 percent of staff in Wisconsin's long-term care facilities are vaccinated right now.
"Sixty percent is not good enough," he said. "But again, a federal mandate is not going to make a market impact."
Abrams says in lieu of a federal mandate, he'd rather see staff who choose not to be vaccinated wear an N95 mask and, in many cases, socially distance. He says WHCA/WiCAL supports individual facilities who decide to mandate vaccines if that makes sense for their unique circumstances, but feels blanket mandates don't change minds in the same way that one-on-one conversations with vaccine-hesitant staff do.