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Workers at some North Dakota nursing homes are almost all vaccinated, others struggle to persuade staff. Here's a list

Nearly 72% of nursing home staff in the state are inoculated against COVID-19, but there's a wide range between the facilities where employees largely accepted the shot and those where employees have so far refused it.

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Alena Goergen, the nursing director at Miller Pointe nursing home in Mandan, N.D., became one of the first nursing home staff members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the Bismarck area on Dec. 16, 2020. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)

BISMARCK — As a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate looms for nursing home employees, some North Dakota facilities are much closer than others to getting all of their staff to take the shot.

Under the direction of President Joe Biden's administration, the U.S. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services announced Thursday, Nov. 4 , that health care staff across the country will have to be fully inoculated against COVID-19 or approved for a religious or medical exemption by Jan. 4, 2022 — barring any hold-ups from the courts. Facilities that don't comply risk losing crucial funding from the agency.

The rule applies to about 80 skilled nursing homes and potentially a handful of basic care facilities operating in North Dakota.

The vaccines have proven to be a windfall for nursing homes in the state, where residents were happy to roll up their sleeves for the shot, said Shelly Peterson, president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association. More than 950 nursing home residents have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, but fatalities in the facilities have slowed to an incredible degree since the jab became available to vulnerable groups at the end of last year, Peterson said.

About 93% of all North Dakota long-term care residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but the disease still poses a risk to those living in the tightly packed facilities. The state Department of Health reported 67 active cases among residents and 105 infections among staff on Thursday. Most residents who catch the virus these days are fully vaccinated "breakthrough" cases, while most staff who test positive are unvaccinated, Peterson said.

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Nearly 72% of nursing home staff in the state are inoculated, but there's a wide range between the facilities where employees largely accepted the shot and those where employees have so far refused it.

On the high end, nine facilities reported staff vaccination rates above 90%, as of the week ending Oct. 24. Meanwhile, eight facilities reported staff vaccination rates below 50%, with Strasburg Nursing Home in Emmons County rounding out the bottom at 38%, according to data published by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services.

With the exception of The Meadows on University, which reported a 61% staff vaccination rate, all of the skilled nursing facilities in Fargo and West Fargo reported rates of at least 88%, with Bethany on University leading the way at 97.2%. All four facilities in Grand Forks County reported staff vaccination rates between 83-86%.

The data offered by CMS, which includes skilled nursing facilities, is only part of the picture. Resident and staff vaccination rates in basic care and assisted living facilities are not federally reported, and the state health department rejected multiple records requests from Forum News Service asking for the data.

Vaccination rates among nursing home employees are often reflective of the communities they serve, Peterson said. Staff in facilities in western and southern North Dakota, where vaccination rates are generally lower, appear less likely to get the jab, while staff in bigger cities seem more amenable to getting the shot.

Peterson also noted that 38 facilities that independently mandated their employees get vaccinated look to have higher inoculation rates. Some facilities that had vaccine requirements go into effect on Nov. 1 had to suspend only a few noncompliant workers while others furloughed as much as 10% of their workforce, Peterson said.

Administrators at rural nursing homes are worried that enforcing vaccine mandates will leave their already short-staffed facilities unable to properly care for residents, Peterson said. More than half of the state's facilities have recently stopped admitting new residents due to staffing concerns.

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Peterson said she wished the federal government had left the decisions on vaccine requirements up to individual facilities, but now that there's a rule in place, she expects all facilities to try to get staff vaccinated.

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