Nearly two-thirds of Florida nursing home staffers decline coronavirus vaccine in first round

The percentages are similar for staff of the state’s assisted-living facilities, but not all of those homes have received first-round vaccinations.
Hair stylist Leah Rivera, left, receives a BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from Walgreens pharmacist Thuy Luu on Jan. 21, at Heron House Assisted Living in Largo. Rivera takes care of the residents' hair at the ALF.
Hair stylist Leah Rivera, left, receives a BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from Walgreens pharmacist Thuy Luu on Jan. 21, at Heron House Assisted Living in Largo. Rivera takes care of the residents' hair at the ALF. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 3, 2021|Updated Feb. 3, 2021

About two-thirds of Florida’s nursing home workers chose not to get vaccinated for the coronavirus in their facilities’ first round of shots, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

As of Tuesday, all of Florida’s nursing homes have offered the vaccine to their residents and staff, according to Samantha Bequer, spokeswoman for the agency. Nearly 68 percent of residents and nearly 36 percent of staffers chose to receive the vaccine, Bequer said. The state is not requiring the vaccinations, which are administered by Walgreens and CVS pharmacies through a federal program.

So far, almost 80 percent of residents and more than 34 percent of staff in Florida’s assisted-living facilities received the shots on their facilities’ first visit, Bequer said. However, not all of those facilities have received shots yet.

The state had said it would administer vaccinations in all assisted-living facilities by the end of January, but CVS was unable to keep its vaccine appointments on January 23 and after, Bequer said. As of Tuesday, 84 percent of assisted-living facilities reported receiving first-round vaccinations, she said.

“To address this critical situation, the (Division of Emergency Management) will be scheduling visits with any assisted-living facility that was not visited by CVS or Walgreens within the first week of February,” she wrote.

The Service Employees International Union is advocating for vaccine distribution to long-term care residents and workers, but does not want vaccination to be mandatory, wrote Bob Gibson, vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which represents workers in Florida. The organization is sharing information about the vaccine with workers.

“Because of racial disparities and historical injustices, which have created skepticism about the healthcare system, as well as misinformation about the vaccine spread online, there have been some challenges to increasing the vaccination rate for long-term care workers,” Gibson wrote.

The high rate of resident vaccinations is encouraging, said Jeff Johnson, state director for AARP, adding, “We are concerned that there are a majority of staff that didn’t opt into the vaccine.”

“I think what that requires is for those who are on the ground to really listen to what the concerns are of those who chose not to get vaccinated,” he said. The next steps will be answering questions and providing advice to those wary of getting the shots, he suggested.

About 70 percent of staff members of Gulf Shore Care Center, a Pinellas Park nursing home, declined the vaccine in the facility’s first round, said administrator Louise Merrick. But many had changed their minds by the second round after seeing that first-round volunteers didn’t have side effects, she said.

When the process is over, Merrick expects that about 10 percent of her staff will have declined the vaccine. She may consider incentives, such as cash, to convince “the stragglers” to get it, she said.

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Tuesday’s count of nursing home staffers vaccinated may be an underestimate, said Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor of public health and family medicine at the University of South Florida. The completion rate does not account for staff members who may have gotten the vaccine elsewhere.

“But I suspect that it’s not too far off, because of some issues around hesitancy,” Levine said. “Until we see a mandate, we’ll probably not have a level that would really be protective.”

Some staff members may be hesitant because of the quick development of the vaccine, Levine said. They may not understand the process or the safeguards, she said, or may have received misinformation on social media.

“So it’s very possible that some early thoughts are the ones that took root,” she said. “And without an intentional effort to explore the concerns that people have, they may hold on to those.”

Others may wait out the first round of shots to watch for side effects or problems, she said.

“We need to have a better idea of where places were successful in getting their staffs vaccinated so that we understand what they did that might have been different,” Levine said, “and use that as best practice and spread it around.”

Vaccinating long-term care staff members remains an important safeguard in protecting nursing-home and assisted-living residents from the coronavirus, Levine said.

“We know that the people they’re working with directly are at the highest risk of death,” she said. “I think it’s incumbent upon them to be able to take all of the protective actions possible, which includes vaccination.”

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