The week that Arkansas public school students returned to school, attention also turned to a group at the other end of the age spectrum: nursing home residents.
On Wednesday, President Biden’s administration announced that nursing homes must ensure their employees are vaccinated in order to continue receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding. It is a vaccination mandate that is imposed on employers, not individuals.
The Biden government’s new ordinance comes amid a pandemic that saw about a third of COVID-19-related deaths in Arkansas – 2,124 out of 6,565 – have occurred in nursing homes.
The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, a health policy group that promotes Arkansan’s vaccination, has started publishing an online dashboard that tracks 222 nursing homes in Arkansas for their cases, deaths, and vaccination rates among residents and health workers.
Based on the information provided by the nursing homes, it was found that 50% of the nursing staff in 71 facilities were not vaccinated, or almost a third. Overall, 61% of health workers in nursing homes in the country were fully vaccinated, slightly above the national average of 60%. According to the latest incomplete figures, three facilities have 100% of their health workers fully vaccinated: Robinson Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Little Rock, Highlands of Bella Vista Health and Rehab, and Barrow Creek Health and Rehab in Little Rock.
The Arkansas Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, responded to ACHI’s online dashboard by saying that some deaths occurred before vaccines were available and that some residents are entering nursing homes who are already infected with COVID. In a three-page press release, the AHCA said it had worked hard to educate its workforce about the vaccines.
If an institution needs to vaccinate its employees, it’s nursing homes. The elderly were the age group most affected by the disease over the course of the pandemic. Nursing homes were the epicenter of the disease in the early days. To protect their residents, they basically closed their doors to loved ones and other visitors, but the disease was still spreading. If a resident of a nursing home has contracted COVID, there is a good chance it came from an employee.
Nursing home operators, like other employers, have been reluctant to impose vaccination regulations on their employees because they don’t want to lose them in a job market where employees have so many other options. But while it is difficult to replace staff, it is impossible to replace federal dollars.
I can’t imagine the federal government demanding that everyone in the general population be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless a variant comes up that is so deadly that resistance is melting everywhere.
But we’re likely to see more of this type of targeted approach that is more stick-than-carrot approach. When nursing homes face the loss of government funds for failing to vaccinate their staff, so could other industries serving vulnerable, restricted populations. Meanwhile, the Biden government is enforcing new rules encouraging unvaccinated federal employees and contractors alike to get their syringes. That’s a lot of people. Members of the military must be vaccinated from September.
Meanwhile, the disease is the carrot and stick enough even for many Arkansans. On Wednesday, the Ministry of Health announced that an additional 10,415 doses had been administered, far higher than at the beginning of summer, when the pandemic appeared to be subsiding. At this point, 44.6% of the state’s eligible population 12 and older are fully vaccinated and 13.9% partially.
This means that approximately 58.5% of the Arcansan eligible for an injection have received at least one. So far, officials have mainly relied on carrots to add to the numbers here and elsewhere. With the pandemic continuing with no end in sight, expect more sticks.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 Arkansas branches. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.