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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
With COVID-19 vaccinations among employees of nursing homes in Iowa lagging, the facilities like others across the nation are expected to be required to mandate doses for their staffs in the coming weeks or risk losing federal funds.
The federal policy announced this week was a welcome one for advocacy organizations like AARP Iowa, which have called on vaccine requirements for nursing home workers as the state experiences a new surge in cases being driven by a more transmissible coronavirus variant.
Currently, only 22 percent of the state’s nursing homes have at least 75 percent of their workers vaccinated, said AARP Iowa State Director Brad Anderson. That 75 percent benchmark was set by the industry itself, he added.
"We are 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,“ Anderson said in a statement. ”Today, 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.“
The Biden administration announced Wednesday that staff at nursing homes across the country must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or those facilities could lose funding from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
That regulation could take effect as soon as next month. The new policy would impact about 15,000 nursing homes, which employ more than a million people nationwide.
The Iowa Health Care Association, an advocacy organization for the state’s long-term care facilities, said it is assessing the impact this mandate would have on Iowa’s 431 nursing homes. Nursing homes across the state employ more than 27,000 individuals, according to the association.
Vaccination rates among nursing home staff in Iowa is about 62 percent overall, according to a dashboard of federal nursing home COVID-19 data compiled by the AARP. However, about 91 percent of nursing home residents in Iowa are vaccinated, the data shows.
“The data was certainly eye-opening to us, and that’s why we made the call” for nursing homes in the state to require staff vaccinations, the AARP’s Anderson said. “There are nursing homes out there that are doing a great job, and we’ve said that all along. But there are others that clearly need to improve their vaccination rates.”
Advocates have raised concerns that nursing home residents — among the most vulnerable populations for severe COVID-19 infection — could once again be put at risk during this current surge in new cases.
After weeks of no outbreaks following the widespread rollout of vaccines, four long-term care facilities in Iowa this week reported a coronavirus outbreak in their facilities. The previous week, three facilities reported an outbreak — at least three confirmed cases among residents and staff.
According to federal data, about 60 percent of nursing home staff nationwide are vaccinated. By comparison, 82 percent of residents are immunized against the novel coronavirus.
The new policy comes as part of the Biden administration's efforts to increase vaccine rates nationwide as the highly contagious delta variant spreads rapidly, driving up case counts and hospitalizations particularly in states with low vaccination rates.
One major nursing home association called on the federal mandate to go further. The head of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, Mark Parkinson, said vaccine mandates should be applied to all health care personnel — not just nursing home staff.
Some hospitals and other similar entities have taken similar steps with their employees, including the Iowa-based UnityPoint Health and MercyOne health systems.
The Iowa Health Care Association raised concerns that this directive could have a negative impact on an already strained long-term care workforce in the state. As of mid-July, nearly 24 percent of Iowa’s nursing homes were reporting a shortage of nurses, aides and other direct care workers, according to the AARP nursing home COVID-19 dashboard.
“Reports suggest that the mandate will only apply to nursing homes and not to other health care settings,” the Iowa Health Care Association said in a statement. “If true, such a singling out of nursing homes is counterproductive and will further exacerbate crisis-level workforce shortages in long-term care.”
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.