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State issues COVID-19 booster mandate for nursing home workers

Hebrew SeniorLife in Jamaica Plain. The organization's president and CEO said he's in favor of a statewide mandate on boosters across health care sectors, particularly as cases increase. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Hebrew SeniorLife in Jamaica Plain. The organization's president and CEO said he's in favor of a statewide mandate on boosters across health care sectors, particularly as cases increase. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

More nursing home workers will now be forced to roll up their sleeves and get a COVID-19 booster — or risk losing their jobs.

That's thanks to a statewide booster mandate for all eligible nursing home staff handed down by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The state set a Feb. 28 deadline for receiving the additional vaccination.

Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, which represents nursing and long-term care facilities throughout the Commonwealth, said getting shots in arms has been a priority.

"We absolutely support any and all efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of our residents and their caregivers working in the Commonwealth's nursing facilities," she said. "We have been actively working towards increasing booster rates among our staff and residents and encouraging our visitors to also be vaccinated and boosted the right now."

Gregorio said around 99.1% of workers represented by the association are vaccinated, with roughly half of those also being boosted. The remaining 0.9% have medical or religious exemptions.

Lou Woolf, president and CEO of Hebrew SeniorLife, said his organization approved its own booster mandate earlier this week, before the state's edict.

He said after talking with his workers, he's not worried about employees who would rather quit than get the shot.

"There was a lot of debate among the industry about mandating and people leaving if you mandated," Woolf said. "And there were a lot of people who were concerned ... early on I tried to focus people on the idea that there are employees who want to be in a safe environment and they might leave if we don't mandate. ... And as I talked to our employees, I did find that there were more people who would tend to leave to go someplace where it is mandated [than] to go someplace where it isn't."

Woolf said 98% of the staff is vaccinated. The remaining 2% have religious or medical exemptions. Of the vaccinated, roughly two-thirds are also boosted.

Still, he said he's in favor of a statewide mandate on boosters across health care sectors, particularly as cases increase. According to Woolf, in the last few weeks, 180 staff members at Hebrew SeniorLife have tested positive for COVID. Some of those have been breakthrough cases, while the majority have been in the unvaccinated.

Gregorio agrees on a statewide booster mandate in health care.

"We should all be held to the same standard when it comes to vaccination and boosters," Gregorio said.

Some major hospital systems, like Beth Israel Lahey Health and Mass General Brigham, have required boosters. But a statewide mandate for the shots has not yet been issued.

Alongside the booster mandate, the Baker administration eased a 2020 rule that required nursing homes to freeze admissions of new patients if they had 10 or more COVID infections among staff and residents.

Now, admissions will only be frozen if infections rise above 20 among residents.

The hope is that this change will ease a growing bottleneck of patients waiting for beds in hospitals, said Dr. Asif Merchant, who works in health and nursing care in Massachusetts.

"Nursing homes are doing just about everything that we can do, [they are] much better with infection control and much better with isolation, with treatments," Merchant said. "And this makes sense at this time because there are a lot of positive cases and if the admissions [freeze], it creates a backlog in the hospital. So I think this is a welcome change."

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Amanda Beland Twitter Producer/Director
Amanda Beland is a producer and director for Radio Boston. She also reports for the WBUR newsroom.

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