Tampa Bay assisted-living company one of few to mandate staff vaccinations

Atria Senior Living “couldn’t be happier” with its decision to require staffers be vaccinated against the coronavirus, a spokesperson said.
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 May 28, 2021|Updated May 28, 2021

The majority of Florida long-term care staffers were not vaccinated against the coronavirus at last count earlier this month, but one company with three assisted-living facilities in Tampa Bay “couldn’t be happier” with its decision to mandate staff vaccinations.

Atria Senior Living announced on Jan. 11 that all staffers be fully vaccinated, said spokesperson Bill Todd. Atria has two facilities in Hudson and one in Spring Hill. At the time, Atria was aware of only one other national senior living company, Juniper Communities, that had mandated staff vaccinations, he said.

“It was a tough decision, and it felt like a very lonely decision at the time,” he said. “The vaccine is the best bridge over the disease, and we couldn’t be happier with the decision that we made.”

Staffers had until May 1 to get their first dose or consent to being fully vaccinated by July 31, Todd said. Anyone hired after May 1 has 30 days to get the vaccine, and those hired after July 1 must be vaccinated before their first shift, said Yunia Gonzalez, regional vice president of operations for the company.

All staffers at Atria’s three assisted-living properties in the Tampa Bay Area have been vaccinated or have consented to it, Gonzalez said. Thirty of the 230 local staff members quit after the mandate, she said.

The state held vaccination clinics for residents and staffers in all long-term care centers, beginning in December. COVID-19 cases in the homes have plummeted from 3,651 cases on Jan. 17 to 345 on May 6, according to the Florida Department of Health.

As of Thursday, Atria’s Tampa Bay facilities had 18 residents and 2 staffers currently positive for the coronavirus, Todd said. The facilities have had a total of three coronavirus deaths among residents, according to the state.

Statewide, the majority of long-term care staff members were not vaccinated at last count.

As of May 23, 41 percent of nursing home staffers and 44 percent of assisted-living staffers had received their first dose of the vaccine, according to the state Agency for Health Care Administration. And nearly 73 percent of nursing home residents and 93 percent of assisted-living residents had received their first dose.

Among the residents of Atria’s Tampa Bay facilities, 462 have received both doses, 15 have received one dose, eight said they plan to get the vaccine, and 20 said they do not plan to get vaccinated, Todd said.

Long-term care facilities are encouraging staff members, but mandating staff vaccines could have averse effects, said Kristen Knapp, spokesperson the Florida Health Care Agency, an industry group representing nursing homes.

“If they’re not comfortable, they leave, and then you have the difficulty of having to fill that position,” she said. “There are not enough individuals to fill vacant positions at this point.”

None of association’s more than 550 members are mandating the vaccine, Knapp said.

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Likewise, no members of LeadingAge Florida, an industry group representing about 500 long-term care facilities, are mandating the vaccine, according to spokesperson Nick Van Der Linden. Members are employing education campaigns on “the safety and benefits of being vaccinated,” he said.

The more long-term care staffers who get vaccinated, the more residents are protected from the coronavirus, “which is obviously a good thing,” said Brian Lee, executive director of Families for Better Care, an advocacy group for long-term care residents and their families.

But mandating the vaccine “is a completely different ballgame” than requiring testing, he said. Lee advocates for routine testing of staffers, but does not support mandating the vaccine.

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