State won’t force nursing home workers to be vaccinated, but nursing homes can, DeWine says

By: - January 6, 2021 1:00 am

Deborah Trigueiro (R) greets her husband Douglas Smith, with a big hug from across the table at the Life Care Center of Kirkland. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Even though dismal rates of nursing home workers are accepting the coronavirus vaccine, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday said he would not force them to. He said, however, that nursing homes could implement such a requirement if they wanted to.

The low rate of acceptance among nursing home staff has been getting a lot of attention since last week when DeWine reported that about 60% were refusing the vaccine. On Tuesday, Ohio Department of Aging Director Ursel J. McElroy reported that in other states, nursing home workers appear to be rejecting the vaccine with similar frequency.

There are plenty of reasons to get the scarce vaccine if one is offered.

Ohio hospitals are crowded with covid patients, with Columbus on Monday activating its emergency hospital diversion program due to the crisis, said Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer of the Ohio Department of Health. Also, a faster-spreading variant of the virus that forced England back into a shutdown has been found in several states and is assumed to be in many more.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s nursing home residents are particularly vulnerable to the virus, with people over 80 accounting for 53% of all deaths in the state.

DeWine said that 75% – 80% of nursing home residents have agreed so far to get the vaccine.

So it would seem to be a life-or-death matter to make sure nursing home staff gets vaccinated — especially since some residents can’t be vaccinated for health reasons.

Yet Dewine says he’s not going to try to require it.

“There is a broad consensus in this state not to require people to get shots,” he said. “Now, if a nursing home wants to require an employee to get a shot, as far as I know they can do that. I know of no reason they can’t do that.”

McElroy said her department is working to persuade more nursing home workers to be vaccinated.

“The acceptance by the residents of the vaccine is encouragingly high, while the staff participation still remains low,” she said. “Anecdotally, this appears to be true in Ohio and other states and we’re really concerned that a refusal or delay of a vaccination reduces our goal of widespread compliance and it compromises our ability to eradicate this virus.”

Among the workers’ reasons for refusing the vaccine are a fear of side effects, worries that it’s too new to be fully understood, a belief that the risks posed by the coronavirus are exaggerated, and a general mistrust of the health system, McElroy said.

“We’re trying to put forth a lot of effort to address their concerns,” she said, adding, “We hope their hesitance is temporary and we want to replace it with confidence.”

To do that, the department is hosting a series of live discussions between nursing home staff and medical experts. McElroy said 400 attended one such virtual meeting on Tuesday.

A department of health spokeswoman last week said that Ohio isn’t tracking vaccine refusals in nursing homes and elsewhere. DeWine on Tuesday said such numbers are tough to compile, but he’s interested in them anyway.

“It’s going to be very difficult for CVS (which is administering some vaccines) to determine that,” DeWine said. “They go into a nursing home, they don’t know what shifts are there, what shifts are off. They don’t know how many people have actually said no, how many people couldn’t be reached. 

“They don’t know. We’re going to give you… I want to know,” he said. “Keep in mind that the first information about 40% (compliance among nursing home staff) came from us. I went out and asked people like CVS, ‘What are you getting?’ and we got that data back from them. So we’re going to give it to you as close as we can.”

But the state isn’t going to require companies and other organizations tasked with administering the vaccine to keep track of refusals, DeWine said.

“Every single time we add one more requirement on somebody who is putting shots in people’s arms we are slowing that process down,” he said.

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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.

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