Jen Schneider eagerly awaited the COVID-19 vaccine. Her elderly parents live at Arbor Village at Hillcrest, a Boise assisted living facility, with medical conditions and ages that place them at high risk of severe illness. They were both fully vaccinated early this year — a relief for Schneider.
But shortly after, new fears erupted: Her 84-year-old stepfather told Schneider of unvaccinated staffers who tested positive for COVID-19. He spoke with one employee who told him she would not get vaccinated, Schneider said.
“It feels like, we got them across the finish line. We got them vaccinated,” Schneider said. “But then to hear that the staff are unvaccinated — that was just a punch in the gut to be honest.”
In fact, most staffers at Idaho’s nursing homes have not been vaccinated for COVID-19, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
While 76.5% of nursing home residents in Idaho have been vaccinated, only 47.6% of nursing home staffers have, according to CMS, placing older, vulnerable residents at risk of the virus that experts say is far more lethal than the flu.
The difference is even higher in some facilities. More than 95% of Arbor Village residents — all but three — have received the COVID-19 vaccine, said Jeffery Smith, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Integral Senior Living, Arbor Village’s management company. By contrast, only a third of Arbor Village staffers have gotten vaccinated, he said.
“There’s great news that the overwhelming majority of residents are vaccinated, so that’s fantastic,” Smith said. “We are continuing to educate our team members to get the vaccine. We’re doing anything and everything we can to motivate them to get vaccinated.”
Smith said the company strives to have all its employees vaccinated and has offered incentives, such as entering a raffle for additional paid time off. But requiring them is challenging. Smith said ultimately that leads to employees leaving, and sometimes being replaced with temp workers who also have no vaccine mandates.
Yet the vast majority of those who have died of COVID-19 are in the older population. Among the 2,136 Idaho residents reported with COVID-19-related deaths, 79% of them were 70 or older, according to the state. About 93% were 60 or older.
Schneider said she would have liked to see a vaccine mandate for those who work with vulnerable populations. But she said long-term care facilities have also struggled with staffing shortages.
“If we were in a normal political environment, you would just require anybody working with vulnerable populations to be vaccinated,” Schneider said.
Incomplete data poses challenges to protect Idaho elderly
The data results from a new federal rule issued in May, which requires nursing homes to report the percentage of staffers who have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Idaho has one of the lowest rates of vaccines among nursing home staffers, according to CMS.
But the data remain incomplete. The new rule applies only to nursing homes, where residents generally require around-the-clock medical care, and long-term care facilities — but not assisted living facilities, like Arbor Village, or other congregate settings.
Some nursing homes also have yet to report the federally mandated data. As of June 16, about 2,000 long-term care facilities weren’t meeting the vaccination reporting requirements, according to CMS. Those who continue to skirt the requirement began to incur fines starting at $1,000 as of Sunday.
U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R- Idaho, in a bipartisan effort in March, urged President Joe Biden’s administration to collect and publicly release COVID-19 vaccine data in nursing homes.
In a statement to the Idaho Statesman on Tuesday, Crapo said complete data on vaccination rates would help determine the most appropriate facility for care.
“It is vital that all states report accurate COVID-19 data,” Crapo said. “That is the only way for economists, researchers, advocacy organizations and policymakers to tackle the challenges facing the nursing home sector head on.”
Assisted living facilities, however, don’t face the same federal mandate. And no such mandate exists in Idaho.
Tamara Prisock, administrator of the state’s Division of Licensing and Certification and co-chair of the Coronavirus Long-Term Care Strike Team, said nursing homes are federally certified with CMS, which is then able to mandate those reporting requirements.
“There’s nothing in either Idaho statute or administrative rule that gives the department authority to require that reporting,” Prisock said. She said the team is working on ways to get assisted living facilities to voluntarily report that information.
Arbor Village’s last COVID-19 positive case was in January, Smith said, and the facility had 22 positive cases in December. The Department of Health and Welfare has noted 48 cases and one COVID-19-related death at the facility, according to its most recent weekly report.
Lupe Wissel, state director for AARP Idaho, told the Statesman that AARP has been advocating for facilities to be transparent to ensure family members that their loved ones are protected. COVID-19 outbreaks also lead to more isolation, which has been particularly difficult on residents, she said.
Isolation has also been difficult on residents in long-term care facilities — and the more the virus spreads in a facility, the less likely they can see their family members again, Wissel said.
“Our concern, of course, is that the residents there have no control over who they come in contact with,” Wissel said. “If the virus is spread in a facility, everyone loses.”
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