Florida nursing home staff have second-lowest COVID vaccination rate in nation

Florida also lags the nationwide average in fully vaccinating nursing home residents an AARP report found.
Too many workers in Florida's long-term care facilities and nursing homes are still not vaccinated against COVID-19.
Too many workers in Florida's long-term care facilities and nursing homes are still not vaccinated against COVID-19. [ AMY BETH BENNETT / SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL | South Florida Sun Sentinel ]
Published Aug. 13, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — A report released Thursday by AARP shows that Florida had the nation’s highest percentage of nursing homes reporting new COVID-19 infections among staff members during a four-week period in June and July.

The Florida facilities also had the second-lowest worker vaccination rate in the nation.

In addition, the AARP report showed that Florida lagged in vaccinating nursing home residents, with 73 percent of residents considered fully vaccinated. Nationally, 81.7 percent of nursing home residents were fully vaccinated.

Forty percent of the state’s nursing homes reported COVID-19 cases among staff members during the four-week period. With just 45.1 percent of long-term care staff vaccinated, Florida was well behind the 60.4 percent national average.

The large percentage of unvaccinated workers virtually guaranteed high COVID-19 infection rates, AARP Florida State Director Jeff Johnson said.

“We saw this coming when it became clear that Florida trailed the nation in vaccinations of health care workers,” Johnson said in a prepared statement. “Unvaccinated staff members living in communities with rising coronavirus cases makes it inevitable that our nursing home residents will suffer.”

Related: 177 Florida nursing homes report COVID-19 cases among residents or staff

COVID-19 infections are surging because of the rampant spread of the delta variant of the novel coronavirus. The virus is attacking mostly unvaccinated people and has led to a large increase in hospitalizations in Florida and across the nation.

Researchers working on the AARP analysis warned that the data could get worse. They noted that nursing homes reported twice as many COVID-19 infections among workers and residents during the week of July 18 than the week of June 20.

“And more recent data shows an increase in cases and deaths in the week following July 18,” the researchers wrote.

Vaccination rates among workers at Florida nursing homes have remained relatively stagnant, according to AARP. An early analysis of the coronavirus and how it spread from one nursing home in Kings County, Washington, to at least eight other long-term care facilities noted that staff members who worked in more than one nursing home played a factor in the spread.

Nursing home residents and staff members were among the first people nationally and in Florida to have access to COVID-19 vaccines, as the disease is particularly dangerous to seniors and people with underlying health conditions.

Sixty-five percent of the 200-member staff at Aviva Senior Living in Sarasota is vaccinated against COVID-19, according to CEO Jay Solomon. The vaccination rate is better than the 45.1 percent statewide average — something that Solomon attributed to a decision to hire a nurse manager to serve as what he described as the “vaccine coordinator.”

But after seeing an increase in the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in Sarasota County, Aviva Senior Living announced this week that all its staff would be required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1. Solomon said the company is recognizing medical and religious exemptions.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

So far, the response to the mandate has been mixed, according to Solomon. Some staff members who were opposed to getting vaccinated have “started the process,” which Solomon said is “a really great sign.”

But Solomon said three newly hired employees did not attend a staff orientation meeting Thursday. Another two employees who have worked at Aviva for about six months have “resigned and walked off.”

“We don’t know whether it was the vaccine mandate. They have not given us the opportunity to speak with them,” Solomon said of the new no-show employees and the two who resigned. “Can we say it’s happenstance or can we say one plus one is (two) in this situation.”

Related: Tampa Bay nursing homes limit visitation as COVID-19 cases rise

Solomon estimated as many as five staff members might leave because of the vaccination mandate, but he said it’s worth the risk.

“We felt that the safety and well-being of our residents and our staff was our No. 1 priority. And with that positivity rate growing substantially, we felt that this was our best way of combating the virus from entering into the community,” Solomon said, noting that on Thursday one resident had COVID-19.

Another nursing home operator, PruittHealth, this week announced that it would require all its employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19. The company owns long-term care facilities in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

In a statement, the company said it was implementing the mandate because of low vaccination rates among its workers. Its four Florida nursing homes are in Fleming Island, Panama City, Tallahassee and Santa Rosa County.

“One life lost to COVID-19 is too many, and as caregivers, we have a responsibility to look out for the health and well-being of this most vulnerable patient population, their families, and the communities each of us calls home,” Neil L. Pruitt Jr., chairman and CEO of PruittHealth, said in a prepared statement.

Only Louisiana, where 44 percent of the staff was vaccinated, had a lower percentage of vaccinated workers than Florida’s 45.1 percent. But in Louisiana, 29 percent of the nursing homes reported new COVID-19 infections among workers, lower than Florida’s 40 percent.

The AARP report is culled from data that nursing homes provide to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The analysis is conducted by the AARP Public Policy Institute and the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio.

The report showed that 3.3 percent of Florida nursing homes reported a great need for personal protective equipment during the four-week period in June and July, which was less than the 4.1 percent nationally.

Also, about 18 percent of nursing homes reported having shortages of direct-care workers during the period. Nationally 23.7 percent of facilities reported not having enough direct-care staff.

By Christine Sexton, News Service of Florida

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

DELTA VARIANT: COVID-19 is resurgent and school is starting. Here’s what parents and kids need to know about the fourth coronavirus wave.

VACCINES Q&A: Have coronavirus vaccine questions? We have answers, Florida.

GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information.

A TRIBUTE TO FLORIDIANS TAKEN BY THE CORONAVIRUS: They were parents and retirees, police officer and doctors, imperfect but loved deeply.

HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.