Lindy Washburn NorthJersey.com
The state’s largest private owner of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, CareOne, has mandated that its staff get vaccinated against COVID-19, the first New Jersey-based long-term care chain to join the state’s two largest hospital systems in requiring the shots.
The decision by CareOne affects about 15,000 employees at senior care facilities in nine states, about a quarter of whom are unvaccinated. It comes as organizations representing nearly 60 health care professions and industry associations across the country endorsed a requirement Monday that all U.S. health care workers be vaccinated.
This week RWJBarnabas Health included all employees in its previously announced vaccine mandate for supervisors and higher-level staff. Enforcement of the earlier mandate led six employees to lose their jobs this week.
Now more than 35,000 RWJBarnabas staff members face an Oct. 15 deadline to be vaccinated or obtain an exemption. If they do not, they will be “separated from employment,” the health system said in its announcement.
Hackensack Meridian Health announced earlier this month that all of its staff, from physicians to janitors, must be vaccinated by Nov. 15.
Get vaccinated or get fired: RWJBarnabas Health to 35,000 NJ staffers
In addition, the federal Veterans Administration will require vaccines for some of its employees, the first federal agency to do so. Staff members who directly care for patients will have eight weeks to get vaccinated, the agency announced Monday.
The VA Health System has a medical center with campuses in East Orange and Lyons, a clinic in Brick and outpatient offices in Elizabeth, Hackensack, Hamilton, Jersey City, Morris Plains, Newton, Paterson, Piscataway, and Tinton Falls.
Gov. Phil Murphy, however, has so far not required vaccines for staff who work at the state-owned and operated veterans homes, developmental centers and psychiatric hospitals.
The veterans homes, which had some of the highest death tolls of any long-term care facilities in the country, have staff vaccination rates of 63.9% in Menlo Park, 74.9% in Paramus, and 72.2% in Vineland, according to state data.
After New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all city public workers would be required to get vaccinated or be tested weekly, Murphy was asked Monday if he intended to do likewise. “No news on that yet,” he said.
As the first major nursing home chain in the state to require vaccines for its employees, CareOne was concerned about the fast spread of the delta variant of COVID and outbreaks of disease it has ignited around the country, Dr. Amina Ahmed, the chain’s chief medical officer, wrote in a blog post announcing the decision.
“Regardless of our job title, as health care workers we have a responsibility to protect our residents and their families by getting vaccinated,” she wrote. “We also have to take care of each other, the people we work with side-by-side.”
The deadline is Sept. 30. “Our goal is vaccination, not termination,” said Eric Bloom, a spokesman for CareOne.
Many unvaccinated employees have said they will feel less hesitant once the federal Food and Drug Administration has given full approval, rather than the current emergency use authorization, to a COVID-19 vaccine. CareOne expects at least one of the three currently authorized vaccines to receive such approval by Sept. 30, Bloom said.
After that, unvaccinated employees without a valid exemption “will not be able work until they show proof of vaccination or eligibility for an exemption.”
CareOne owns 20 nursing homes, 12 assisted-living facilities, and three long-term acute-care hospitals in New Jersey, with locations in Teaneck, Hackensack, Paramus, Cresskill, Oradell, New Milford and Westwood in Bergen County, as well as Wayne, Morristown, Moorestown, Middletown, Bound Brook, Parsippany-Troy Hills, Evesham, Hanover, Holmdel, Hamilton and Livingston.
Long-term care residents have accounted for 30% of the state’s 26,579 COVID deaths. In addition to 7,878 residents, 144 employees also died. More than 1,500 outbreaks were reported at long-term care facilities throughout the pandemic.
Both long-term care residents and their staff received top priority for vaccination in New Jersey, with special arrangements made to provide the shots on-site from January through March.
As a result, COVID cases among residents plunged. Currently, 32 facilities have active outbreaks, an increase of four compared to last week.
But the union representing many nursing home employees, 1199SEIU, is opposed to a vaccine requirement. Nursing homeowners have been reluctant, as well, for fear that their employees will leave for other institutions that do not require vaccines.
“We agree that vaccination is an important tool to help us move forward, but mandating vaccination is not, nor will it ever, be the answer,” said George Gresham, president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, last month, after New York Presbyterian Hospital announced its plans.
“A hard-handed approach will not work and will only create greater frustration” for health care workers, he said. The union represents about 8,000 health care workers in New Jersey.
Vaccination rates among staff at 565 long-term care facilities in New Jersey averaged 70.5% last week, compared with an average vaccination rate of 89.5% among residents.
Atria Senior Living, a national company with assisted living, independent living and memory care facilities in 28 states, was among the first long-term care companies to announce a vaccine mandate in January. It says that 98% of its 10,000 employees have been vaccinated.
Lindy Washburn is a senior health care reporter for NorthJersey.com. To keep up-to-date about how changes in the medical world affect the health of you and your family, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.