AARP calls for vaccine mandates as COVID reenters Kansas, Missouri nursing homes

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With cases on the rise among both residents and staff, the nation’s leading advocacy group for the retirees is calling on nursing homes to mandate COVID-19 vaccines.

The number of COVID-19 cases reported each week in Kansas and Missouri nursing homes is rising again for the first time in months.

Missouri, where weekly cases averaged in the teens and 20s this spring after most residents received their COVID vaccines, reported 123 cases among nursing home residents during the last week of July, the most recent figure published by federal healthcare officials.

The same week, 193 cases were confirmed among staff.

In Kansas, weekly cases dipped into the single digits after the vaccine rollout, but its most recent data showed 32 cases among residents and 63 staff cases.

Two dozen nursing home residents died of COVID during the last week of July between the two states.

“The high COVID death rates of residents and staff in nursing homes have been a national disgrace. As the new variants are emerging, facilities cannot let preventable problems be repeated. The key is to increase vaccinations, and do it now,” said Nancy A. LeaMond, AARP’s executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer, in a statement Thursday.

Kansas Reflector reported last week that Missouri had the 3rd-lowest vaccination rate for nursing homes staff out of all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico, according to data compiled by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Only Florida and Louisiana trail Missouri.

As of Aug. 1, 47.7% of nursing home staff have been fully vaccinated in Missouri, and 57% have been vaccinated in Kansas. Meanwhile, over 80% of residents have received a COVID-19 shot in both states. The figures reflect only facilities that are licensed by CMS. Both Kansas and Missouri license long-term care facilities, like assisted living centers, and do not track vaccination rates among them.

“We know that variants are coming out that are more contagious and we're not sure what those are going to look like but ... vaccinating everyone possible in those settings will prevent sickness and death of nursing home staff and residents,” said Ernest Kutzley, advocacy director for AARP Kansas.

Both Kansas and Missouri’s nursing associations have affirmed their support for workplaces mandating the vaccine for healthcare workers and said nurses have an ethical duty to the patients they serve.

The Missouri Nurses Association does not represent certified nursing assistants or licensed practical nurses, who often work in long-term care facilities. Heidi Lucas, the organization’s state director, said she thinks it may take workplaces’ mandating the vaccine, especially for healthcare workers, for numbers to boost significantly.

“Asking nicely hasn't been working and you see the mess we're in currently,” Lucas said. “I don't like the government telling me what to do more than the next person. I don't like my workplace telling me what to do more than the next person, but this is something that is for the greater good.”

Some nursing home chains already have, with Good Samaritan Society, a chain of nursing homes with a dozen locations in Kansas, last month requiring the vaccine for its workers. States have begun to issue mandates of their own, with Massachusetts believed to be the first to do so earlier this month and ordered most nursing home workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 10.

Nikki Strong, the executive director of the Missouri Health Care Association, which represents over 65% of Missouri's licensed skilled nursing care facilities, said she was encouraged by high vaccination rates among residents, and has heard from facilities that vaccinated residents who do contract COVID are not seeing as severe illness.

But she fears mandates may drive away workers in a time of a staffing shortage.

“I think we need to let each employer make the best decision for their specific circumstance,” Strong said, later adding: “At this point, given the workforce challenges that our long-term care providers face, the vaccination mandates would probably further challenge them, and make it difficult for them not only to keep their staff and retain the staff, but also recruit staff.”

According to a June survey published by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living of over 600 nursing homes and 120 assisted living communities nationwide, 94% of nursing homes and 81% of assisted living facilities surveyed reported facing a recent shortage of staff, like needing employees to work overtime to fill shifts.

If staff choose to leave, then nursing homes can’t accomplish their ultimate goal of caring for residents, Strong said. While she would like to see staff choose to take the vaccine — which she said are safe and effective and the best tool for the pandemic to end — each time a new employee joins a facility administrators must work with them to address their personal concerns around whether to take the vaccine.

“We aren't like a restaurant or somebody else who can curb their hours to make up for staffing shortages,” Strong said. “We can't do that. We have to be there 24-7.”

Kelly Sommers, executive director of the Kansas State Nurses Association, said it’s important for nursing home staff members, who are working with “extremely high risk individuals” to get vaccinated. She pointed to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s data showing that following spring lows, nursing homes are now the leading source of COVID-19 clusters in the state.

“We can’t go through what we went through before,” she said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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