ROCHESTER — According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, just under 80% of nursing home workers in Minnesota are vaccinated against COVID-19. North Dakota and South Dakota are close behind, with staff vaccination rates just over 78%.
While these are higher than the percentages of healthcare workers vaccinated in Oklahoma and Missouri, they are 10 points lower than staff vaccination rates of 90% and above in California, New York, Colorado and Alaska.
Thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing vaccination mandates in health care, Minnesota and the Dakotas having 20% of nursing home workers unvaccinated could soon become a staffing issue.
On Thursday, Jan. 27, the nation hits the first of three federal deadlines en route to 100% vaccination of nursing home workers in order for a facility to receive Medicare and Medicaid payments. All nursing home staff must have received a dose or filed an exemption request by Thursday.
In a concession, the policy allows homes with 80% staff at one dose to continue, as long as they have a plan to achieve full vaccination or exemption within 60 days.
A deadline for 100% to have received a second dose falls on February 28, and by March 30 the rule allows enforcement action to begin, using compliance investigations by sub- contractors.
“We think that number is low,” said Patty Cullen, CEO of Care Providers MN, of Minnesota’s 80% overall vaccination rate for nursing home staff. “We think there is a higher number of people who have been vaccinated or who have received an exemption.”
Cullen says his research shows that many poorly vaccinated facilities in the state entered inaccurate data, which skewed the state’s data overall.
“I’m pretty confident that we’re top of the class when it comes to vaccinations,” she said.
Because of this discrepancy, it’s unclear how many Minnesota nursing home workers could be laid off due to the looming deadline.
At the high end, there are about 40,000 nursing home workers in Minnesota, according to Cullen. If, as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services report, 20% of this group is unvaccinated, that would mean 8,000 Minnesota nursing home workers must either get a medical or religious disqualification or get vaccinated. in the coming weeks.
Cullen counters that the federal percentages lag two weeks behind the actual vaccination numbers in each state and do not reflect the number of those who received a religious or medical exemption.
She said a recent survey of care providers estimated that 6% of nursing homes in the state are worried about not meeting the threshold, which means the number of facilities in the state that don’t will not reach 80% on Thursday is “less than 10%”.
There are about 360 nursing homes in Minnesota, Cullen said. “Of this group, there are maybe 30 to 35 who could have problems on January 27, (where) they will struggle to reach at least that 80% threshold,” she said.
With an average facility of around 100 employees, “if they have 15 or 20 of their employees who are unvaccinated, that’s really a few hundred (dropped workers) total…that would be our guess.”
“We have supported vaccination in our circles because we know it makes a difference,” she said. “The only concern right now is that our workforce is so short of resources that even one or two employees who have to leave put us in a real staffing crisis.”
Religious exemption means more PPE
Nursing homes are now using federal legal advice to determine religious exemptions.
“You can’t just endorse everyone because they come,” Cullen said. “If everyone has the same exemption language, you want to challenge it.”
Cullen adds that staff who have exemptions and are not vaccinated will be required to wear a greater level of PPE.
“They’ll have to wear N-95s all day. They’ll have to be tested…Just because someone is exempt doesn’t mean the facility doesn’t have to do something to strengthen infection control practices. “