Health Department says nursing homes need 80 percent of staff vaccinated — or increase testing

‘One COVID case of an unvaccinated staff member can cause visitation to shut down for several weeks,’ an industry advocate said

By: - August 12, 2021 1:26 pm

Executive Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter announced a new expectation for all Pennsylvania nursing homes to have 80 percent staff vaccinated by Oct. 1, 2021.

(*This story was updated at 2 p.m. on Thursday, 8/12/2021, to include comment from the Pennsylvania Health Care Association.)

MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — All Pennsylvania skilled nursing facilities should have at least 80 percent of staff vaccinated for the coronavirus by Oct. 1, the state Department of Health announced Thursday.

Currently, 12.5 percent of Pennsylvania facilities have 80 percent of their staff vaccinated. During a press conference at Asbury Bethany Village, a senior living facility in this Harrisburg suburb, Executive Deputy Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter said that’s not enough to prevent future outbreaks.

“This is embarrassing and quite frankly very frightening to residents and their loved ones,” Klinepeter told reporters. 

She added: “We are committed to helping prevent outbreaks by stopping COVID-19 from entering a nursing home in the first place, and one of the best ways we can do this is by vaccinating staff in these facilities.”

Nursing homes and senior care facilities were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 13,400 residents and employees in nursing homes and senior care facilities have died from the virus. More than 88,000 have become ill, according to state data.

“Literally, the lives of our most vulnerable are at risk, and as we have seen in the past, outbreaks of COVID cases in unvaccinated people happen,” Klinepeter said. “We do not want an unvaccinated person bringing the virus into the facility.”

As part of the new initiative, the Health Department launched a new online dashboard that includes vaccination numbers for nursing homes, using self-reported data that the federal government collects each week.

“By making this data available in this format, it is more useable for the public,” Klinepeter said. “We want families to see the vaccination rates where their loved ones are living and working.”

LeadingAge PA, a Mechanicsburg-based nonprofit for aging services, has worked to support vaccination efforts in nursing homes, including a recent recommendation to member nursing homes to require COVID-19 vaccinations among staff.

“Our long-term care residents went without visits from families and friends for about a year due to a federal mandate. This was devastating for them,” Anne Henry, the industry group’s senior vice president and chief government affairs officer, said. “They were so grateful to have visitors again, but one COVID case of an unvaccinated staff member can cause visitation to shut down for several weeks.”

Thursday’s announcement isn’t a mandate, but Klinepeter said it’s a “first step” to encourage vaccinations.

Facilities that fail to meet the expectation are required to administer more frequent COVID-19 tests for unvaccinated employees. Community transmission rates will determine testing levels, and facilities have to bear the cost. If a facility fails to comply with guidelines and meet testing requirements, the Health Department will issue a deficiency that will be posted online, along with a plan for correction. In severe cases, a facility can face fines.

In the last few weeks, the Health Department has received eight requests for personal protective equipment, five for staffing, and three for testing from state nursing facilities, Klinepeter said. These requests indicate that outbreaks are happening, and the best way to address them is by getting vaccinated, she added. 

The Pennsylvania Health Care Association, a statewide advocacy organization, blasted the Health Department’s expectation, calling it “yet another mandate” in a statement.

“Long-term care providers have been working diligently since the COVID-19 vaccine became available to educate workers and residents on the benefits of the vaccine,” Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, said. “Instead of proposing solutions to increase vaccine acceptance rates in long-term care, the Department of Health, today, threatened providers and issued a punitive mandate on nursing homes if 80 percent vaccination rates are not achieved.”

He added: “Working with providers – not punishing them – will produce better outcomes.”

As of Thursday, there are 1,243,932 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania. To date, 63.9 percent of Pennsylvanians are vaccinated, according to state data.

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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.