Pa. nursing homes brace for potential care crisis with healthcare COVID-19 vax mandate looming

APOLLO, Pa. — A COVID-19 vaccine mandate is fast approaching for all health care workers, and that has many nursing homes bracing to potentially lose more employees in the midst of a critical staffing shortage.

Right now, about 30% of Pennsylvania nursing home workers are still unvaccinated, and the deadline to get their first shot is Dec. 5 — just about two weeks away. The deadline for them to be fully vaccinated is Jan. 4.

With those deadlines looming and so many employees still hesitant, many facilities are worried they might not have enough employees to care for patients.

Get the vax or get fired

Several employees at Quality Life Services nursing home in Apollo are still hesitant to get the COVID vaccine, and that includes both medical staff and support staff.

“I don’t think anybody should be forced to take it,” said Ashley Claybourne, a nursing supervisor.

Certified Nursing Assistant Misty Smith is also upset that her career is now in jeopardy.

“I don’t feel it’s fair. I’ve been doing this for 11-years, and I’m about to potentially lose my job,” Smith said.

Also on the fence is receptionist Yvonne Bassett, who’s worked at Apollo for 13 years. She’s worried about rare neurological side effects of the vaccine, even though research has shown the risk is far higher in people who get COVID-19.

“I’m more worried about the serios side effects,” Bassett said. “I don’t want to be that rare person.”

Facilities face losing more workers

There are approximately 25,000 long-term care workers in Pennsylvania who are still unvaccinated. That’s about 30%.

Owners at Quality Life Services worry they could lose a significant number of employees at their 10 facilities, statewide.

“It’s scary to think we could potentially not have enough caregivers,” said QLS co-owner Mary Susan Tack-Yurek. “Quite frightening, because I don’t know any industry, whether it’s healthcare or otherwise that could lose 50, 40, even 20-percent and be able to continue to provide services, let alone keep the doors open.”

All health care facilities that don’t meet the mandate to have all workers vaccinated by the deadline face losing their Medicaid and Medicare funding.

For nursing homes, that accounts for about 80% of their revenue, which puts many facilities in the difficult position of losing funding or employees.

“Losing even one worker is one too many at this point,” said Pennsylvania Health Care Association President Zach Shamberg, who says the industry is already in the midst of a critical staffing shortage.

“We have providers who are quite literally turning away vulnerable senior citizens who need care simply because they don’t have enough staff available,” Shamberg said. “This could make it even harder for families to find care for loved ones.”

Persuasion falls short

For months, Quality Life Services has tried just about everything to convince employees to get the shot — from myth-busting education to big prizes, like a trip to Disney World. It barely moved the needle.

Now, with the mandate looming, QLS is starting to see an increasing number of hesitant employees get the shot.

“Knowing that their job could be potentially in jeopardy is enough for some people to tip over the edge to say okay, I’m going to get it,” Tack-Yurek told Channel 11.

Receptionist Yvonne Bassett is among those now seriously considering getting the vaccine.

“I don’t think I’m going anywhere,” Bassett said.

Even so, many are still frustrated that they have little choice in the matter.

“They are taking it because they have a family to support whether they agree with it or not,” said Claybourne.

Medical and religious waivers

Employees can also apply for a medical or religious waiver to avoid getting the shot, which Tack-Yurek says several have done.

Claybourne is among those who applied for a medical waiver and got one, citing a family history of blood-clotting disorders. All unvaccinated employees who get waivers will have to adhere to strict safety protocols.

“We take all the precautions we need to, N-95′s, we test twice a week,” Claybourne said, adding that she is not worried that she will pass COVID-19 on to a resident.

Tack-Yurek says determining religious exemptions is proving a bit more complicated than medical waivers.

“As the employer, how much do we say, ‘No, I don’t know if I’m going to accept that.’ How much do you say, ‘That’s your religious belief and I’m not to question that,’” Tack-Yurek explained.

Those who don’t quality for waivers will have no choice but to get vaccinated by the final deadline of Jan. 4, 2021, or be terminated.

“I’ll lose my job,” Smith said, adamant that she will not get the shot. “I don’t get anything. I don’t get the flu shot. I just don’t put foreign substances in my body.”

Uptick in vaccinations

Nursing homes are encouraged by a last-minute uptick in vaccinations, but the Pennsylvania Health Care Association (PHCA) estimates facilities could still lose five to10 employees on average.

PHCA is calling on the state to have the National Guard ready to help facilities care for patients, if needed. Several other states, including New York, New Mexico and Wisconsin, have already made provisions to do that.

11 Investigates asked the Department of Health if they have similar plans to use the Pennsylvania National Guard to help nursing homes and other health care facilities if needed to help avoid a care crisis. They have yet to respond.