Nursing homes ramp up vaccinations ahead of mandates

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Sep. 27—BOSTON — Nursing homes across Massachusetts are ramping up efforts to get their staff vaccinated for COVID-19 ahead of federal and state mandates.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced in August that the state will require staff at nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospice programs to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 10 or face disciplinary action, including termination, unless they've been granted a medical or religious exemption.

Baker's mandate covers at least 62 state-licensed rest homes, 85 hospice care programs and 268 assisted-living facilities, according to the administration.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has ordered sweeping new federal vaccine requirements for as many as 100 million Americans — private-sector employees as well as health care workers and federal contractors — in a major push to curb spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

His plan will also require vaccinations for about 17 million health care workers at hospitals and nursing homes that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding.

The latest data shows overall Massachusetts inching closer to meeting the mandates, with some of the highest nursing home staff vaccination rates in the country.

As of Sept. 20, an average of 89% of staff in skilled nursing facilities are fully vaccinated, according to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. That's a 3% increase from the previous week and 7% increase since last month, the agency said.

When Baker rolled out his mandate in August, nearly half of the state's skilled nursing facilities had less than 75% of their staff fully vaccinated.

Still, vaccination data compiled by the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which lags by several weeks, shows some nursing facilities in Massachusetts with less than 75% of the staff fully vaccinated as of Sept. 5 — lower than the state's 81% average at the time.

Alliance Health at Rosewood, a 135-bed facility in Peabody, had reported 65.3% of its staff fully vaccinated as of Sept. 5 with more than 99% of its residents vaccinated.

At the Mary Immaculate Nursing and Restorative Center in Lawrence only 77.2% of the staff were fully vaccinated as of Sept. 5, while nearly 95% of the residents were vaccinated.

Sea View Skilled Nursing & Rehab Services in Rowley only had 77% of its staff fully vaccinated as of Sept. 5, according to the federal data.

Sea View's owner, Steve Comley, recently threatened to shut down the facility rather than force about 50 employees who refuse to get vaccinated to get their shots. Comley has ripped Baker's mandate as "government overreach" and said he doesn't believe he has the right to force employees to get vaccinated.

To be sure, averages reported by federal health officials have likely risen as many nursing facilities ramp up efforts to get all of their staff vaccinated with the Oct. 10 deadline approaching.

Most healthcare providers have set their own policies on vaccinations and exemptions as part of an effort to meet their obligations under the new requirements.

Mike Bell, president of Penacook Place in Haverhill, said nearly 97% of the staff at the 160-bed nursing home facility are fully vaccinated. He four staff members have been granted exemptions.

"We were one of the first facilities in this area to start the vaccination process, so we had a head start," he said. "We had a conversation with our staff letting them know that we don't have a choice in this, and we wanted them to stay and continue to be a part of our team, but to do that they would have to be vaccinated."

Bell said there wasn't a lot of pushback from staff about getting vaccinated, and so far nobody has quit over the requirement.

"Some of our sister facilities are struggling with getting their staff members fully vaccinated but we're doing very well here," he said.

Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, a group that represents nearly 400 facilities, said the industry supports mandates for all health-care workers as "a critical step toward protecting our vulnerable residents and our dedicated staff from breakthrough COVID-19 infections."

"We are very encouraged by the fact that the most recent reports show 92% of nursing facility staff have received their first vaccine dose, and we expect that number to increase in the coming weeks," she said.

"That is a testament to the hard work of nursing facility staff coming together to ensure the safety and well-being of their residents, each other and their families," she added.

Massachusetts was hit hard early by the pandemic. Nursing and assisted living facilities were the center of the virus' deadly spread through the state.

Roughly 30% of COVID-19 related deaths last year were among nursing homes residents, according to state data. Nationally, about one-quarter of the nation's pandemic deaths have occurred in nursing homes.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com

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