Nursing homes in Oklahoma and across the nation are in danger of losing staff or funding following pressure from the Biden administration spurred by a resurgence of COVID-19.

Nursing homes that refuse to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for their staff will lose Medicare and Medicaid funding. 

Oklahoma has more than 600 long-term care facilities. Nearly 300 of those are nursing homes. Two nursing home industry officials contacted Wednesday expressed concern that the mandate could prompt resistant workers to trade their nursing home job for one at another facility that does not require the vaccine. 

The move comes less than a month after the Department of Veterans Affairs began mandating vaccines for its healthcare workers following a spike in cases this summer. The Biden administration has also mandated vaccines for federal employees and contractors, and National Guard members. 

Kim Green, chief operating officer for the Diakonos Group which employs more than 1,000 workers at 23 long-term care facilities across the state, said she supports a vaccine mandate. But only if the ultimatum applies to all facilities that receive federal health care dollars. 

“We feel this is unfair,” Green said. “We all care for elders, whether in a hospital, clinic, specialty, or urgent care. It’s just deeply disappointing how they come out and again make us look like we aren’t doing a good job.”

In Oklahoma, about 49% of nursing home health care workers are fully vaccinated, according to an Aug. 1 report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that oversees these facilities. Nationally, 60% of nursing home staff are fully vaccinated. 

More than 81% of Oklahoma nursing home residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 82% nationally, according to the data. 

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A weakened immune system, medical conditions and age increase the risk of serious illness or death resulting from COVID-19 making nursing home residents among the most vulnerable. 

Gary Webb, whose mother Nelda is in a Norman nursing home, applauds the news. 

Webb said he nearly lost his mother to the virus last spring. She survived but has difficulty focusing and is more confused than she was before the virus, he said. Webb sees the vaccine as a life-saving, and mandatory measure. 

“I think everybody should be vaccinated,” Webb said. “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t, especially if you work in a nursing home.” 

Last month, infections began to surge across the state. As students and teachers return to the classroom and with the introduction of the more contagious Delta variant, the virus continues to spread. 

Despite required cleaning and protective gear measures, facilities are susceptible to outbreaks brought in by visitors, residents who leave for doctor appointments or to see family, or workers who could become infected at their local grocery store or their child’s school. 

Long-term care facilities reported 246 new cases of COVID-19 among residents from the first week of June to Aug. 14, according to State Department of Health reports. Nineteen residents have died.

During the same time, 184 new cases were reported among staff. Two workers have died. 

Many long-term care facilities, which include nursing homes, veteran centers, assisted living communities, homes for people with disabilities and others, are already short-staffed due to last year’s COVID-19 outbreaks. Some quit under the stress. Others feared for their lives. 

Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter and visual storyteller at Oklahoma Watch, with an emphasis on domestic violence, mental health and nursing homes affected by COVID-19. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or wbryen@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.

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