Are Vaccine Mandates the Answer to Lagging Rates Among Nursing Home Staff?

A growing number of private health care and nursing home providers have begun to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for staff and residents.

On Monday, Lurie Children’s Hospital became the latest Chicago-area hospital to mandate shots for all of its 7,500 staff.

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Lagging vaccination rates at nursing homes prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker to announce last week that his administration would require all employees of state-operated nursing homes to be vaccinated by Oct. 4.

While 84% of nursing home residents in Illinois have received the vaccine, just 62% of the workers who care for them are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Frances Lachowicz is executiver director of Mercy Circle, a continuing care and retirement community in Mount Greenwood. Mercy Circle is part of the Trinity Health group that last month issued a vaccine mandate for its staff.

She says the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the Mercy Circle community.

“We did lose a total of three residents,” Lachowicz said. “In the beginning, it affected the elderly the most, people in retirement communities … it was a very scary and uncertain time.”

Lachowicz says efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus also left many residents feeling isolated.

“At the peak of the pandemic through the winter months, it was very, very hard on our residents. Visiting was restricted. The facilities were quote-unquote on lockdown in terms of not having visitors come in,” Lachowicz said. “During that time of no family contact it was very difficult for residents.”

Now 100% of residents at Mercy Circle are vaccinated, as are roughly 90% of staff.

Nevertheless, with the rapid spread of the delta variant of the virus, Trinity Health decided to mandate that all employees be vaccinated.

“Trinity Health implemented that policy and it corresponds to our value of safety at Trinity Health,” Lachowicz said. “We just thought that we should do everything we can for the safety of our community residents and staff.”

She said staff have until Sept. 21 to get vaccinated.

While some of the holdouts are seeking either religious or medical exemptions, most have complied.

“Initially, I think people took a wait-and-see approach and so as they saw others get vaccinated and suffer no ill effects more people got the vaccine,” said Lachowicz. “We are hoping that staff see that our goal is just really keep our residents in our community safe and align it with our with our values as a Catholic health care system. So we’re hoping that we do not have to let anyone go because of this.”

Residents and their families overwhelmingly support the vaccine mandate, she said.

“Our residents and their family members are extremely happy,” said Lachowicz, because in the event of an infection, residents are effectively on lockdown. “During that time services to residents are affected,” she said. "They don’t get to have as much freedom. They don’t get visitors if they’re in that infected area. So it really changes their life. Our residents even said, 'You know I wish our staff could get vaccinated,’ and so now that we have vaccines the residents are the most happy.”

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