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Care center execs worry federal mandates could exacerbate staffing shortage

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | September 28, 2021 7:00 AM

Executives overseeing the Libby Care Center are concerned that an impending federal vaccine requirement could exacerbate the staffing shortage at the local nursing home.

“Staffing at Libby, as with skilled nursing facilities nationwide, is difficult right now,” said Steve LaForte, director of corporate affairs at Cascadia Healthcare, in a Sept. 23 statement. “Any vaccine mandate has the potential to negatively impact the problem.”

In August, federal officials began developing emergency regulations that would require nursing homes affiliated with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to vaccinate all employees. Earlier this month, officials urged care providers to begin preparing for when the rule would take effect.

Officials are planning to issue an interim final rule with a comment period in October, according to a Sept. 9 press release.

While LaForte didn’t have all the details of the coming rule, he said Libby’s nursing home is a Medicare and Medicaid certified provider and is subject to all CMS regulations.

Following an outbreak at the facility last month, which left 10 residents dead, the care center received criticism from some relatives about its staff vaccination rate. Karen Wickersham, who lost her uncle Earl Stanley during the surge, said she had heard from care center staff that the outbreak was started by an unvaccinated employee.

LaForte said Cascadia officials believed a staff member brought the virus into the center but couldn’t confirm if the employee was vaccinated since the company keeps vaccination records in a blind database.

During the outbreak, 20 employees tested positive for the virus, creating a severe staffing shortage. To bolster its ranks, the facility had to call on Montana disaster relief volunteers, according to Rachel Toland, facility administrator.

“The staffing crisis it put us in was tremendous,” she told the Lincoln County Health Board earlier this month.

Vaccinated employees who tested positive during the surge saw milder symptoms than those who had gone without. Many vaccinated employees with COVID-19 continued working in the facility’s coronavirus ward, where infected residents were cared for, according to Toland.

Since the outbreak, LaForte said the number of vaccinated employees and residents has nudged upwards. As of Sept. 23, 54 percent of staff and 88 percent of residents had received shots. Around the height of the outbreak on Aug. 14, just shy of 50 percent of staff members and 83.5 percent of residents were vaccinated.

The vaccination rate among residents at the care center has already surpassed the national average of 84.1 percent recorded by CMS in the week ending on Sept. 12. LaForte said the facility was continuing to move its staff vaccination rates closer to the national average of 64.4 percent listed by CMS. In a community like Lincoln County, which has a vaccination rate well below 50 percent, LaForte said Cascadia officials have had a difficult time convincing employees to get shots.

Numbers on the county’s vaccination rate vary between sources. The state Department of Public Health and Human Services reports that 41 percent of the eligible population has received shots. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 34 percent of the population aged 12 and up is vaccinated.

Cascadia will keep promoting educational campaigns in an effort to increase staff vaccination rates, according to LaForte. Due to a state law that prevents employers from discriminating based on vaccination status, Cascadia cannot require staff to get shots until required by federal regulations.

“We continue to work with our staff on education and support them in the heroic work that they do as care providers generally, and even more so during the trying times of this pandemic,” said LaForte.

At least one care center nurse has questioned the efficacy and safety of vaccines on social media. In a Facebook comment, Sandra Dubler Hendricks, a certified nursing assistant, pointed to the recent outbreak at the facility, which claimed the lives of vaccinated residents, as proof that coronavirus vaccines don’t work. Dubler Hendricks said she wouldn't get vaccinated if required by a federal mandate.

Medical professionals and public health officials have repeatedly stressed that vaccines are safe and effective.