Less than 55% of nursing home staff are vaccinated in South Carolina, long-term care facilities prepare for mandate

Grand Strand

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — Long-term care facilities across the nation are racing against the clock to vaccinate their entire staff against COVID-19 after the Biden administration threatened to cut Medicare and Medicaid funding for facilities that don’t comply.

The president made that announcement earlier this month, citing low vaccination rates among those who work in nursing homes.

Right now, the CDC reports 53.86% of health care personnel in South Carolina nursing homes are fully vaccinated. The figure in North Carolina is slightly higher, at 55.62%, but both Carolinas rank among the bottom 15 U.S. states and territories in this vaccine category. 

At Brightwater Senior Living in Myrtle Beach, the vaccination rate of employees is higher than the state average, coming in near 62%.

“Initially it was, here is the education component of why this is important for our workforce to receive the vaccination,” Michael Fink, Brightwater’s executive director, said. “Once we started seeing that we weren’t getting the statistics that we wanted to, we did start incentivizing.”

Fink said the vaccine rate of those providing direct care to residents is higher than those in other sectors of the community, such as dining, transportation and housekeeping.

However, the Biden administration’s mandate includes all employees at facilities who serve people on Medicare or Medicaid.

While Brightwater has three sectors: independent, skilled and assisted living, only one draws from federal money.

“It  still can cripple this community,” Fink said. “I can only imagine those that are stand alone and receive Medicare/Medicaid, if they can’t comply with that it is going to damage their industry and business.”

Staffing issues are another impact Fink sees in the future.

“The ramifications of this could really impact our industry as a whole,” he said. “Not just for direct care because if those nurses, LPNs, RNs, CNAs; it’s not that they can go to a different community and get a different result. Meaning that they don’t have to get vaccinated, but those other departments that make up a community, they could go to a different industry. They could go to restaurants, hotels, etc. and still have a job.”

Fink said to take the next steps to prepare for the mandate, he needs to know what the exceptions are so he can make sure the staff is educated.

“What I don’t know yet and what I haven’t received information about is, what are the exceptions and what are the waivers, you know is it religion, is it medical,” Fink said. “We don’t know that yet. We are trying to be proactive and communicate to our staff, that it’s about when, not if, but we don’t know what the exceptions will be.”

News13 reached out to DHEC for comment about the low vaccination rate among long-term care facility employees and received the following response:

In December, when COVID-19 vaccines first became available, you may remember that South Carolina made the immediate decision to set aside about 145,000 doses of Moderna vaccine to ensure every long-term care facility resident and worker would have access to vaccine. The agency felt this was incredibly important since long-term care facilities across the nation were being devastated by COVID-19.
The agency worked with the CDC’s Long-Term Care program to hold three vaccine clinics at every long-term care facility in the state, ensuring all residents and workers who wanted shots had free, easy access to the vaccines. You can see the historic numbers of this effort at the bottom of this webpage. 
Since the conclusion of that initial massive vaccination program, DHEC has continued to strongly urge vaccination for all LTCF residents and the workers who care for them. Any LTCF that reaches out to DHEC for COVID-19 vaccination is connected at the local level with a vaccine provider.
Requiring vaccines for an employee isn’t a DHEC decision. That would need to be a policy implemented by facility.

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