State reverses course, orders nursing home workers get vaccinated

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By Andreas Yilma, Staff Writer

NAUGATUCK — All employees of long-term care facilities in the state will have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or their employers will face hefty daily fines, under an executive order.

Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order Aug. 6 mandating workers at nursing homes, residential care homes, assisted living service agencies, immediate care facilities, managed residential communities and chronic disease hospitals receive at least the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Sept. 7. Facilities that don’t meet the requirement will face a $20,000 fine each day.

The Aug. 6 executive order came a day after Lamont announced that nursing home workers won’t be ordered to get vaccinated and only required to undergo COVID-19 testing.

When asked why the administration decided to change its mind, Max Reiss, director of communications for Lamont, said officials had been discussing it for several days and decided that going a further step made sense.

“We thought this was a good strategy, a good approach to limit the spread of COVID not just among residents but among staff,” Reiss said.

Reiss said officials consulted with the state Department of Public Health, nursing home owners and union representatives.

“We’ve seen the way COVID-19 could make its way through nursing homes,” he said.

Approximately 55% of all nursing homes statewide had a staff vaccination rate lower than 75% vaccinated as of early this month, according to state officials. Only 21% of nursing homes in the state had a staff vaccination rate higher than 85%.

In a statement, SEIU District 1199 New England President Rob Baril said union officials are looking into the details of the executive order for further discussions with employers to ensure effective implementation. SEIU District 1199 is a large healthcare workers union in the state. The union represents workers at nursing homes across Connecticut, including Glendale Center in Naugatuck.

“District 1199 New England is encouraging workers to get vaccinated against COVID since last December based on the advice and recommendation of experts. The vaccine is an essential tool to protect workers and the people we care for every day,” Baril said in the statement.

Officials from Genesis HealthCare, which owns Glendale Center, and Athena Health Care Systems, which operates Beacon Brook Health Center, said they are working to meet the mandate.

“We are working through the impact of the new policy with all of our unvaccinated staff with the great sensitivity these discussions deserve,” said Lori Mayer, a spokesperson for Genesis HealthCare. “We greatly respect and value our employees and would have preferred to not have to resort to a universal policy, but the need to ensure the health and safety of our patients and residents must outweigh other considerations.”

Mayer said vaccination against COVID-19 will be a condition of employment, unless a worker has a medial or religious exemption. Currently 88% of residents and 61% of staff at Glendale Center are vaccinated, she said.

Tim Brown, a spokesman for Athena Health Care Systems, said nursing home officials support the vaccine mandate to protect residents, staff and others in the community.

“We have worked diligently to educate our staff, residents and their families on the benefits of vaccination,” Brown said. “COVID-19 vaccines protect health care personnel when working both in healthcare centers, facilities and in the communities in which they live.”

Currently 85% of Beacon Brook staff is vaccinated, according to Brown.

Brown added, though, that officials have concerns that the mandate could lead to staff shortages if employees leave for other opportunities.

“Recruitment and retention of caregivers is something every healthcare provider in the state is struggling with at this time for a number of reasons, and recruitment of nursing home staff has always been challenging,” Brown said.

From July 21 through Aug. 3, there were no confirmed cases or coronavirus-associated deaths reported at Glendale or Beacon Brook, according to data released by the state. There were 113 residents at Beacon Brook and 106 at Glendale during that time.

There were 50 cases and three deaths among all residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the state during that time, and 48 cases among staff.

Cumulatively through Aug. 3, there were 138 cases and 36 deaths among Beacon Brook residents, and 60 cases and eight deaths among residents at Glendale. There were 43 cases among staff at Beacon Brook and 12 among staff at Glendale. There were no reported coronavirus-related deaths among staff at either nursing home.

There were 14,179 confirmed cases among nursing home and assisted living facilities residents in the state since last year and 3,884 coronavirus-associated deaths, according to state data. There were 5,038 cases among staff and five deaths attributed to COVID-19 or complications from the disease.