Biden mandates vaccines in nursing homes, admonishes GOP governors on school masks

By: - August 18, 2021 5:09 pm

President Joe Biden pleads with Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 during remarks Aug. 18, 2021, at the White House. (Screenshot from White House livestream)

WASHINGTON — Nursing homes will be required to ensure their staffers are vaccinated against COVID-19, or risk losing federal Medicare and Medicaid dollars, the Biden administration announced Wednesday in a major move on vaccinations as the delta variant sweeps many states.

President Joe Biden at a press conference also criticized Republican governors who have prohibited school boards from requiring students to wear masks.

He said he has directed Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to use his oversight authority and legal action, if appropriate, to push back against governors who block or intimidate local educators from taking safety precautions in schools.

The New York Times reported that the administration will use the department’s civil rights office for enforcement, and send letters to states including Arizona, Iowa and Tennessee “admonishing governors’ efforts to ban universal masking in schools.” Biden said he would be discussing schools again next week.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law in May approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature that prohibits local governments and schools from requiring masks of employees, students or the public. After parents and educators rallied at the state Capitol last week asking her to rescind the ban for schools, Reynolds emphasized that it’s up to parents whether to their child wears a mask.

Cardona already has written Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis saying that if his administration withholds state funding from school districts that enact mask mandates, those schools can use federal coronavirus relief dollars to make up for the penalties.

Staff jabs will be mandatory for Medicare, Medicaid participation

Under the new nursing home policy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will develop regulations to require vaccinations of nursing home staffers as a condition of participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs.

“I’m using the power of the federal government as a payer of health care costs to ensure we reduce those risks for our most vulnerable seniors,” Biden said during the news conference detailing new federal actions.

“If you visit, live or work in a nursing home, you should not be at a high risk of contracting COVID from unvaccinated employees,” Biden added.

The new federal mandate is the latest vaccine requirement from the Biden administration. The Department of Veterans Affairs has required health care workers to get vaccinated, and all federal workers must either prove they have been vaccinated or face masking and testing requirements.

Biden acknowledged that while he has limited authority to require COVID-19 vaccines, he will be looking for additional ways to boost vaccination rates.

Several states have enacted vaccine requirements

He praised governors and mayors in Maryland, California, New York and other states for enacting certain vaccine requirements, and said the federal government will be covering all costs related to National Guard missions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The nursing home vaccination requirement that Biden announced Wednesday will apply to staffers in 15,000 facilities, which employ approximately 1.3 million workers and serve approximately 1.6 million residents, according to the White House.

Some states and some nursing homes already have required staffers at long-term care facilities — where they may be in close contact with patients at high risk of a serious infection — to get a COVID-19 shot.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was the latest on Wednesday, announcing that nursing home staffers in his state will be required to show proof of vaccination, or adhere to ongoing COVID-19 screening and testing.

Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities accounted for a substantial share of the earliest COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Residents of those facilities were among the earliest to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, and the latest data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services shows 82% of residents are vaccinated.

But only 60% of the staffers in nursing homes are vaccinated, according to CMS data.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 133,000 nursing home residents and nearly 2,000 nursing home staffers have died as a result of COVID-19 infections.

Iowa nursing home announced staff vaccination requirement

The administration’s decision comes less than a week after Western Home Services, one of Iowa’s largest senior-care providers, announced a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination program for all of its employees.

Western Home said Monday it was requiring all of its employees and volunteers to be fully vaccinated by November of this year, and to have received a first dose by Oct. 1. The requirement applies to maintenance, housekeeping and kitchen staff, as well as the nurses and aides who provide hands-on care for residents.

The company’s website states that the company has “had several fully vaccinated residents recently test positive for COVID-19.”

Western Home Services includes the Western Home Communities complex in Cedar Falls; Madrid Home Communities in Madrid and Huxley; Creekside Living in Grundy Center; and Winding Creek Meadows Assisted Living in Jesup. The non-profit organization employs 1,100 people who work with 1,400 residents in independent living, assisted living and skilled-nursing care facilities.

“The people we serve – our residents, patients and clients – are the most vulnerable to this virus due to age and underlying conditions,” CEO Kris Hansen stated on the company’s website. “More than 95% of them quickly stepped up to be vaccinated and ensure a safe community. Their health is in our hands and we want to honor their trust.”

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases tied to the delta variant triggered the new mandate. In a letter to employees, Hansen said in a statement that the “only way out of this mess, hopefully once and for all, is for everyone possible to get vaccinated.”

Over the past eight months, the company has reportedly offered financial incentives for workers to be vaccinated, but the rate of vaccinated employees stalled at 65%.

“We saw how outbreaks stopped earlier this year after vaccinations rolled out,” Hansen said. “Vaccines work and they’re safe, based on data from more than 300 million doses given in the U.S. alone. We respect the right of people to choose, but at the end of the day, this organization had to make a choice. We are choosing the best course of action to protect the people we serve.”

AARP Iowa State Director Brad Anderson said the organization is “pleased with the news from the White House that nursing home staff will be required to be vaccinated” as a condition of receiving federal funds.

“Recent data released by AARP shows only 22 percent of Iowa nursing homes have reached the industry standard of 75 percent of its workers being vaccinated,” he said. “Iowa nursing homes still have a long way to go meet the vaccination standards set by the industry. The new federal requirements should help spur much-needed action. As the new variants are emerging, nursing home facilities cannot let preventable problems be repeated. The key is to increase vaccinations, and do it now.”

Clark Kauffman

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Iowa Capital Dispatch. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.