FARGO — Missouri Slope in Bismarck became the latest North Dakota nursing home to announce that it will require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 — a voluntary move that many others are likely to follow in light of a new federal policy.
The Biden administration will require nursing homes to vaccinate all employees in order to be eligible for Medicare and Medicaid funding, a powerful financial incentive to spur vaccination to protect elderly residents.
Failure to comply with the vaccination requirement would place nursing homes at risk of going out of business, said Shelly Peterson, president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association.
“We must comply to save lives and continue to stay in business,” she said Wednesday, Aug. 18, after the federal requirement was announced.
In North Dakota, 65% of nursing home employees have been vaccinated and 38 of the state’s 218 long-term care facilities require their employees to be vaccinated, Peterson said. Nationally, 62% of nursing home employees are vaccinated, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Missouri Slope, which has 250 beds and 95 assisted living apartments in Bismarck, said families are increasingly asking nursing homes what steps, including vaccinating staff members, they are taking to protect residents from getting infected.
“We value creating the safest environment for our residents, our staff and the people visiting us,” said Karson Pederson, communications specialist at Missouri Slope.
So far, more than 60% of employees, more than 80% of residents and 95% of assisted living tenants at Missouri Slope are vaccinated, she said.
The vaccine requirement at Missouri Slope is a move to prevent another deadly wave of infections, especially with the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreading. Pederson said.
So far, the pandemic has claimed 905 lives in nursing homes, according to the North Dakota Department of Health and the deaths of 10 nursing home employees, according to federal figures compiled by AARP.
“We needed to make sure we get ahead of this before it possibly gets out of control again,” Pederson said.
Slightly less than a quarter of North Dakota’s nursing homes are meeting the goal of having at least 75% of employees vaccinated to help protect vulnerable residents from COVID-19, according to an analysis of federal figures by AARP, which advocates a vaccination mandate.
“I think as these new variants continue to emerge and continue to spread it’s critical not to allow preventable problems to be repeated,” said Josh Askvig, state director of AARP in North Dakota. “Nursing homes get paid to provide a service.”
Many nursing homes have been reluctant to require employees to get vaccinated because they fear they could lose workers, Peterson said. In North Dakota, as of late July, almost 33% of nursing homes were coping with a nursing shortage and almost 37% didn’t have enough nurse’s aides, according to federal figures.
“That’s the issue,” she said, before the federal requirement was announced. “It’s very challenging.”
To decrease vaccine hesitancy, “We’re continuing to educate, educate, educate,” including countering myths and misinformation spreading on social media about the vaccines, she said. Vaccine acceptance among nursing home workers mirrors community attitudes, she said.
Earlier in August, Eventide and Bethany announced that they will require their employees to be vaccinated. Good Samaritan Centers, part of Sanford Health, also require workers to be vaccinated.
Earlier in the pandemic, Bethany offered a $100 incentive for employees to get the jab. At the time the vaccine requirement was announced, more than 90% of Bethany employees and probably 98% of residents were vaccinated, said Shawn Stuhaug, president and CEO.
“Everything should hold together pretty strong until we get the booster,” he said. Booster shots will begin Sept. 20.