Imagine a loved one living in a Florida nursing home. A medical condition prevents them from getting a COVID vaccination or diminishes the vaccine’s effectiveness. Now imagine that less than half of the nursing home staff is vaccinated. That’s not a hypothetical. It’s a dangerous reality in many of the state’s nursing homes. Employees with no vaccine protection moving from one vulnerable resident to another, potentially spreading the virus. What could go wrong?
Only 42 percent of Florida’s nursing home workers were vaccinated as of July 4, the Tampa Bay Times’ Hannah Critchfield reported this week. Only Louisiana had a lower rate. Nationally, 56 percent of nursing home staffers were vaccinated. These are health care workers, and this just isn’t good enough. That number is shockingly low given that these are health care workers. Florida should at least aspire to match the national rate.
The stubbornly low vaccination numbers among nursing home workers come as Florida leads the nation in new COVID cases, with nearly 1 in 5 new infections across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of new cases in Florida has nearly doubled in the past seven days, and the week-to-week growth rate is the highest the state has seen since the first wave of COVID-19 infections in June 2020.
New COVID infections are mostly among the unvaccinated. And in Florida, the current case rate for unvaccinated residents is similar to the case rate for all residents in January, the peak of the state’s COVID outbreak, according to an analysis from the Washington Post. In other words, even with more than half the adult population now vaccinated, the chances of an unvaccinated person contracting COVID are about the same as seven months ago, when the virus was raging. Unvaccinated nursing home workers are not magically immune from those risks. Or from endangering their vulnerable patients.
About 70 percent of Florida’s nursing home residents are vaccinated. But that means 30 percent aren’t, some by choice but many because of underlying medical conditions. That’s all the more reason to ensure that the staffers get the jab. Otherwise, they can spread COVID to the very people they are entrusted to care for.
As the Times’ Critchfield reported, nursing homes don’t have to immediately inform the public of a COVID outbreak or provide details about how many staffers are vaccinated. Some facilities have required vaccinations for staffers, but many others haven’t. That must change. Nursing home staffers who deal with patients should be vaccinated. Their employers should require it. It’s a no-brainer.
As COVID cases exploded last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis wisely made protecting older residents and those living in nursing homes a top priority. Unvaccinated nursing home employees jeopardize that hard work. The governor doesn’t need to mandate that they get vaccinated, at least not yet. He should use his many resources to educate those vaccine-hesitant workers on the merits of getting the jab. Find out why Florida’s nursing home workers are even more vaccine-reluctant than their national counterparts and then address their concerns. He should also remind nursing homes that no one wins when they sidestep their responsibility to keep residents safe. Low pay and worker shortages are legitimate challenges for nursing homes. But those issues cannot trump residents’ safety during a pandemic.
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The delta variant circulating around the country is much more infectious than the original COVID strain. Nursing homes that require vaccinations for workers who care for one of the most vulnerable populations will help contain the spread. The law allows it, and ultimately it will be good for business. Nursing homes should no longer allow unvaccinated workers to risk residents’ lives.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.