Will vaccine mandates help or hurt nursing home staffing in Tampa Bay?

One senior care company says it was good for morale.
Atria Senior Living, which operates three assisted living facilities in Tampa Bay, has mandated staff vaccinations since January.
Atria Senior Living, which operates three assisted living facilities in Tampa Bay, has mandated staff vaccinations since January. [ Miami Herald ]
Published Sept. 13, 2021|Updated Sept. 13, 2021

Since the delta variant began to spike in Florida, Su Suriano has doubled down on efforts to encourage her staff to get vaccinated.

As the administrator of Manor Care Health Services of Palm Harbor, a nursing home in Pinellas County, she’d heard the concerns of her employees, many of whom are young and come from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Suriano began holding “town halls” at the facility this summer, enlisting a physician on site to help answer questions and dispel myths about the shots.

”’Will the vaccine affect my ability to have children?’” Suriano said. “‘Why do I have to get it when I hear of vaccinated people testing positive?’ Those are the two big questions we get.”

The push appears to have paid off.

Staff vaccinations at the facility increased by 10 percent in a month’s time, according to most recently available Centers for Medicare and Medicaid data, rising to 71 percent by the last week of August.

But ProMedica Senior Care, the nursing home’s parent company, has yet to make staff vaccinations mandatory.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is expected to issue an emergency rule requiring staff vaccinations within nursing homes nationwide later this month, following an announcement by the Biden administration that these facilities must do so or risk losing federal funding.

In the meantime, many Tampa Bay nursing homes are holding off on mandating staff vaccinations. Assisted living facilities are not expected to be governed by the mandate.

Senior care leaders fear the impending requirement will lead to a “mass exodus” of employees out of an industry already struggling with worker shortages.

“The intent is good, but the result of this action may be the opposite of what they’re actually trying to accomplish, which is providing quality of care to the residents,” Suriano said.

The Florida Health Care Association, which represents more than 80 percent of Florida nursing homes, applauded the Biden administration’s move last week to expand the mandate to all health care providers receiving federal funding — as nursing home staff are now less likely to quit to work in another health care setting like a hospital.

Kristen Knapp, communications director for the organization, said many of their members have expressed concerns about staffing.

The Biden administration is expected to broaden the scope of vaccine requirements beyond the health care industry. But most United States employees — over 80 million workers — will have the option to submit to weekly testing if they do not wish to get vaccinated. Employees in health care settings will not.

“I think some people may just decide that they don’t want to work in a profession that requires that,” Knapp said.

Nursing homes in Tampa Bay face a steep challenge. At least 17 area facilities have less than 30 percent of staff vaccinated, according to available Medicare and Medicaid data.

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It’s hard to assess how much of an impact a vaccine mandate will have on employee turnover, though existing estimates have suggested it will lead to a 10 percent or less loss of staff. Some experts have said such losses will be a drop in the bucket given existing high turnover rates.

One senior home company in Tampa Bay argues that vaccine mandates can be good for business — they may convince seniors to come back to long-term care after a year of bad publicity, and boost retention among staff.

Atria Senior Living, which operates three assisted living facilities in Tampa Bay, started requiring their staff get vaccinated as early as January.

“We were kind of lonely when we did it,” said John Moore, chief executive officer of the company. “We had all the same fears people have now about staff losses.”

In Florida, as in the other 24 states where they operate facilities, the company has lost less than 2 percent of staff due to the mandate, according to Moore.

”When the smoke cleared, everybody took the vaccine — from the social justice warriors to the DeSantis warriors,” he said. “It’s a little like an amusement park ride. You’re scared of doing it beforehand, but after, you’re glad you did it.”

Moore believes the vaccine mandate has been good for business — it strengthened staffers’ sense of camaraderie.

The company is seeing higher demand from potential residents in New York than Florida, something he attributes to the overall lower vaccination rates in the southern state.

”New York had heavy PTSD for awhile, but now, it’s recovering,” Moore said. “It’s kind of flipped, and I think it all has to do with spread in Florida. It’s okay to say that the vaccine is good business.”