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

By: - August 19, 2021 12:40 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)

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 staters including Arizona, Iowa and Tennessee “admonishing governors’ efforts to ban universal masking in schools.” Biden said he would be discussing schools again next week.

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.

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.

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.

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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 Ohio Capital Journal. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

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