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Nursing home concerned how vaccine mandate will impact staffing

MORGANTOWN — The Biden administration announced Wednesday a new mandate that would present an ultimatum to several long-term care nursing homes: get employees vaccinated or lose federal funding. 

Now, nursing facilities which serve Medicare and Medicaid enrollees are alarmed by what this mandate could mean for them. 

“Worst-case scenario would be that we may have to shut part of our facility down,” said CEO of Sundale Nursing Home Michael Hicks.

Hicks said Medicaid funding accounts for about 65-70 percent of the Sundale facility’s total revenue. Until the official requirements of the mandate are finalized, Hicks plans to wait and see how it unfolds before implementing further action.

“The only thing that you can do is work with what you know,” Hicks said. ”I really don’t want to go out there and just think, ‘What am I going to do if I lose 10 to 15% of my staff?’ ”

The new mandate could take effect as soon as next month. This mandate is among several implemented to encourage higher vaccination rates, including a July announcement requiring all federal employees and federal contractors to prove vaccination status or be required to wear a mask on the job. Earlier this month, the Pentagon released a memorandum endorsed by President Joe Biden which will require U.S. service members to get the COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks.

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the current national percent of vaccinated staff per facility is 60 percent. Sundale’s staff falls just above the average at about 65 percent fully vaccinated, according to the data. 

Genesis HealthCare, which operates Genesis Elder Care in Morgantown, announced its own mandate Aug. 2, which required all employees to get vaccinated. Spokesperson Lori Mayer said within its four pilot centers and an affiliated nursing home which imposed vaccination requirements, the overall response to the mandate has been positive. 

“We found that when we discussed these considerations with our colleagues in a thoughtful manner, many decided to get vaccinated at the outset,” Mayer said. “Still more who indicated some initial resistance changed their minds and became vaccinated.”

Staffing shortages have not yet been an issue for Genesis HealthCare despite the mandate. Moving forward, Mayer said they are hopeful staffing implications will be limited.

“However, we have made extensive contingency plans to ensure the adequate staffing of our facilities and are working very carefully, facility by facility, to address any issues that may arise,” she said.

Harmony at Morgantown, an assisted living facility, does not receive federal funding and will not be impacted by this mandate. Executive Director Mark Terry said a vaccination mandate is not in place at the facility, but the home is working diligently to vaccinate residents and is vaccinating at least 80 percent of staff members.

“That’s my challenge at this point,” Terry said.

Hicks said Sundale nursing home has required several other COVID-19 precautions within the facility. This includes requiring all vaccinated employees to be tested once per week and unvaccinated employees to be tested twice per week. 

The facility has also partnered with the WVU School of Pharmacy to conduct vaccination clinics and has provided educational opportunities to employees to learn more about the vaccine.

“My take on the whole thing is you have to — even though I may not agree with them — I think you have to respect everyone’s decision,” Hicks said. “To mandate someone in this fashion and with such a heavy stick by threatening to take away funding, I’m just really saddened that it has come to that and that our president has decided to do that.”

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