Nursing homes stretched thin amid NY COVID vaccine mandate for health care workers: advocates

Coronavirus

NEW YORK — New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers has put already vulnerable nursing home facilities in an even more precarious position, advocates say.

Wednesday marked the second day of the state’s requirement that every health care worker get vaccinated or resign without the ability to collect unemployment benefits. 

While many hospitals in the New York City-metro area reported they had to let few people go in the wake of the mandate, the situation has been different for some nursing homes, which also have to comply with the requirement.

“Since New York’s first-in-the-nation vaccine mandate went into effect on Monday, zero health care facilities across the state have been reported closed,” Gov. Kathy Hochul tweeted Wednesday afternoon.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re not short-staffed. 

Nursing homes, in particular, are vulnerable. Many were short-handed before the governor’s vaccinate-or-resign requirement.  

Alexa Rivera, a founder of the patient advocacy group Voices for Seniors, said the requirement exacerbated existing staffing issues.

“They’re overworked. They’re undertrained,” she added.

Voices for Seniors, which supports vaccinations for nursing home staff, held a rally outside of the governor’s office on Wednesday in support of a state Assembly bill that would provide compensation for the families of loved ones who died of COVID-19 in nursing homes.  

Rally attendees also said nursing homes and other assisted-care facilities need more trained staff members.

Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association, agreed. He said nursing homes, unlike hospitals, have been so short-staffed for so long, they can’t simply let staff go.

“Employers are very reluctant to terminate those employees,” he said. “In many instances, I’m hearing it’s a 30-day unpaid leave of absence.”

Hanse pointed out that about 92% of nursing home staff have been vaccinated statewide, according to the governor. That other 8%, however, translates into tens of thousands of staffers, which can be devastating.

“If you have a nursing home with four staff on the night shift and two haven’t been vaccinated, it’s a 50% cut in your staff, which is dramatic,” Hanse said.

Officials hope the workers on leaves of absence will get vaccinated in the next month and return. But even if they do, nursing homes will be as short-staffed as they were before the mandate.

New York State hasn’t increased Medicaid payments to nursing homes for 12 years, which caused part of the staffing issues.

“We’re advocating for an increase in the Medicaid rate, and 100% of that increase would go toward worker salaries,” Hanse said.

However, the top advocate for nursing home patients in the New York State Assembly, Ron Kim, advised some caution regarding increasing Medicaid funding.

“Whether it’s nursing homes or home care, there’s a lot of fraud,” the Queens Democrat said.

According to Kim, 66% of assisted-care facilities in New York are owned by for-profit corporations. He expressed concern that increased Medicaid funding would just provide an opportunity for facility owners to make more profit without improving care.

“There are nursing homes, good ones, as well as home care agencies, that have figured out how to structure it better,” Kim said. “We need to look at it systemically. We need to structure it better.”

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