By Shereen Siewert

With weeks remaining until federal deadlines to vaccinate all health care workers against COVID-19, the most recent federal data show that many nursing homes have a long way to go, including several facilities in the Wausau area.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the mandate covering 76,000 health care facilities that receive Medicaid or Medicare funding, requiring employees to be fully vaccinated. If all staffers — excluding those with approved religious or medical exemptions — aren’t fully vaccinated, the facility will lose that money.

Most, but not all, of Wausau-area nursing homes have staff vaccination rates of about 79 percent or higher, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. But that’s not the story everywhere: At Rennes Health and Rehab Center in Weston, less than 62 percent of current healthcare personnel received a completed COVID-19 vaccination as of Jan. 23, according to the latest data available. And at Pride TLC Therapy and Living Campus, the number is even lower – at 34 percent. Nationwide, the rate sits at about 80 percent.

According to a recent analysis in The New England Journal of Medicine, low vaccination rates put residents at higher risk of death. Facilities in high-COVID counties with an average staff vaccination rate of approximately 30 percent had roughly three times as many COVID-19 deaths among residents as facilities where about 82 percent of employees were vaccinated, researchers found.

Mark Perkinson, president of the American Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, told The Center for Public Integrity that his organizaation is concerned that the repercussions of the vaccine mandate will be devastating to an already depleted long-term care workforce, putting seniors in danger.

“When we are in the midst of another COVID surge, caregivers in vaccine hesitant communities may walk off the job because of this policy, further threatening access to care for thousands of our nation’s seniors,” Perkinson said.

Nursing homes have struggled for years to recruit and keep employees, whose jobs involve heavy physical labor and long hours, often for low pay. The median wage for nursing assistants in 2020 was $14.82 per hour, according to federal data. Industry leaders say the biggest concern is that nursing homes won’t have enough workers to care for residents if employees quit over vaccination. When nursing homes don’t have enough staff, the quality of care can sharply decrease, resulting in medication mistakes and other horrors.

In March 2020, 3.3 million people were employed at nursing homes and residential care facilities nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In December 2021, that number dropped to 2.9 million, a loss of 400,000 workers.

Persuading health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 isn’t easy, industry officials say. Surveys of nursing home caregivers suggest many staff worry about vaccine safety and side effects despite major information campaigns. And many experts say the problem isn’t a lack of information, but who delivers it. Direct caregivers often lack trust in facility leadership.

Many hospital systems and other employers are reporting that they did not see widespread departures after implementing their own vaccine mandates. Just 5 percent of unvaccinated workers–and 1 percent of all workers overall–said they left a job because of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate from their employer, more evidence that a feared exodus of workers due to mandates isn’t as severe as some predicted.

Health care sites in states that challenged the federal requirement have until March 15 for their staffs to be fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, while facilities in states that didn’t sue to block the mandate, including Wisconsin, have a Feb. 28 deadline.