About 60% of workers at Vermont’s skilled nursing facilities have been vaccinated — a far cry from the vaccination rate at other types of health care facilities, where up to 90% of workers have received the vaccine.
State health officials said Vermont has enough vaccine for all staff members and residents in nursing homes statewide, and the low vaccination rate is just a result of vaccine hesitancy among nursing home workers.
Health department spokesman Ben Truman declined to identify which of the state’s nursing homes have the lowest vaccination rates — though he said that around a third of Vermont’s skilled nursing facilities have less than 60% of their staff vaccinated. He said those facilities aren’t concentrated in any particular area of the state.
Why the hesitancy? “There may be a fair amount of misconceptions within this group that may make them fearful of the vaccine, based on erroneous information,” said Christine Finley, immunization program manager with the Department of Health.
But she said Vermont has done “quite well” compared to other states in vaccinating nursing home workers. A CDC study published Friday, which surveyed over 11,000 skilled nursing facilities, found that, on average, just 77.8% of residents and 37.5% of staff members had received at least one vaccine dose.
By comparison, at Vermont’s 37 skilled nursing facilities, 92% of residents have received at least their first dose of the vaccine and 66% of staff in skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, and residential care homes in Vermont have received at least a first dose.
“We’re delighted with that,” Finley said, noting that news reporters from other states have called her to ask why Vermont is doing so well — a question she said she doesn’t have an answer to.
“We would like to see it a little higher for sure, but we think it could increase from those initial vaccine clinics,” she said.
Finley said lower acceptance rates among nursing home staff than among other health care workers has been typical of the flu vaccine for many years, so it wasn’t a total surprise to see the same trend with the Covid vaccine.
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One bright spot, she said, is that this year, flu vaccine uptake was about 10% higher among all health care workers in Vermont than last year, and no flu outbreaks have been reported in long-term care facilities, or in schools or workplaces.
Nursing home administrators say they’re pretty happy with the Covid vaccine uptake too. Most said they’ve been trying to educate their workers about the benefits of vaccination, but haven’t been pushing too hard.
Ursula Margazano, administrator of Menig Nursing Home in Randolph Center, said 97% of her residents and 83% of staff have chosen to be vaccinated thus far — one of the better results in the state. But even with those numbers, she said she’s still trying to get more staffers on board.
“I’ve just been kind of re-approaching some of our staff that have opted out of these initial clinics about some upcoming vaccine clinics through our partnership with Gifford (Medical Center), and others hosted throughout the community, to get them to consider the benefits of potential vaccination,” Margazano said.
She said the staff members who are opting out are typically pretty young — usually late teens or early 20s. Margazano said she’s been approaching people one-by-one to try to provide as much education about the vaccine as possible, without being overbearing.
“Younger staff have made mention of wanting to see more information on how people are responding to vaccination,” she said. “Just from what I’m hearing, they see it as perhaps not having received as much vetting or testing as they might be comfortable with.”
She said the same concerns aren’t an issue to the annual flu vaccinations. Those shots, she said, have close to 100% participation among her staff.
Finley said Covid vaccination rates might be low for nursing home workers because they are more likely to come from marginalized communities that have had historically low trust in systemically racist government and health care institutions.
“Some of the populations that may work in long-term care facilities may be part of disadvantaged populations or (Black, Indigenous or people of color) populations that may not have as much trust in government,” she said. “But there’s a range of beliefs in any group.”
The state has been offering a series of three vaccine clinics at nursing homes statewide, so all residents and staff have the opportunity to get their first and second dose of the vaccine — with an extra clinic scheduled for anyone who missed either of the first two slots.
Truman also said reporting delays and the fact that clinics are still being held as factors for low vaccination rates — even though vaccine clinics at skilled nursing facilities are nearly completed, and all of the state’s skilled nursing facilities have had at least one clinic.
Finley said that so far, no facilities have required their workers to get vaccinated.
“My understanding is that there may have been questions or concerns about that, I’m not even sure if that was coming from staff or coming from the facility, but at this point, I don’t think any have done that,” she said.
January Reichert, director of nursing at Gill Odd Fellows Home in Ludlow, said 44 of the 55 staff members have been vaccinated — around 80%.
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“I’d seen other places that have done bonuses or incentives, we didn’t do anything like that,” Reichert said. “We just tried to provide education and limit the misinformation that’s out there on vaccines.”
She said she’s heard conspiracies from her staff members that range from Bill Gates using the vaccine as population control to the vaccine actually being a microchip that will track you everywhere you go. Reichert said she doesn’t see it as her job to change everyone’s mind, but she does think it’s important to push back against those kinds of ideas.
“We just really hammered home how important it is, and how important it is to protect the residents we’re caring for,” she said. “We’re asking them to do something that may bring some semblance of normalcy again. Most of them were very willing to do it.”
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