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Ky. Nursing Homes Worry Vaccine Mandate Will Create Worker Shortage

J. Tyler Franklin

Kentucky nursing home administrators are worried that a new federal mandate for their employees to get vaccinated will lead to a worker shortage.

President Joe Bidenannounced plans on Wednesday to withhold Medicaid and Medicare funding from nursing homes that don’t require their employees to get the shot.

Betsy Johnson, president of the Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities, said nursing home industry leaders strongly support their workers getting vaccinated, but many employees don’t want to.

“Our health care workers are human beings too. They are influenced by things they see on social media, family members, misinformation, political debates about COVID-19,” Johnson said.

“Regardless of the fact that they wear the hat of a health care worker or somebody that works in a skilled nursing facility does not change the fact that we have to address those issues.”

Johnson said nearly all nursing homes won’t be able to survive without Medicaid and Medicare funding.

According to federal data, 51.6% of nursing home workers in Kentucky are fully vaccinated, the seventh-lowest rate in the nation. The vaccination rate for all Kentuckians is 47%,according to the Mayo Clinic.

Nursing homes have been a hotbed for coronavirus cases, especially early on in the pandemic before vaccines were widely available.

As of June—the last time Kentuckyreleased a report on deaths in long-term care facilities—2,323 residents and 9 staff in the state had died of coronavirus during the pandemic. That’s 32.3% of the 7,180 total coronavirus-related deaths reported by Kentucky at the time.

As of August 19, a total of 7,468 people have died of coronavirus in Kentucky, but the state no longer reports which deaths take place in long-term care facilities.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services is still drafting the regulation for the nursing home vaccine regulation, to take effect next month.

Gov. Andy Beshear said he recognizes nursing homes’ concerns about a staffing shortage, but said their employees need to get vaccinated.

“If they’re unvaccinated, the chances they are bringing in this deadly virus to the facility are so much higher, then they’re exposing people who are so much more fragile,” Beshear said.

“I believe there is a responsibility to the people that the individuals who work in our nursing homes serve to get vaccinated.”

Earlier this month, 11 major hospital systems in Kentucky announced they would require employees to get vaccinated.

A Republican state lawmaker has proposed a bill to ban businesses from requiring workers to get vaccinated. The measure will be considered during the next legislative session in January.

Johnson, with the Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities, said the only thing that is going to change the minds of people who are vaccine hesitant is hearing positive experiences from people they know.

“It’s one-on-one conversations, it’s having people within those buildings, aligning them up with people who are hesitant and having them have conversations,” Johnson said.

“People in government and people on TV can talk all they want, but you really need to have somebody that you trust.”

Ryan Van Velzer contributed to this report.

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Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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