Nursing Facilities Nervous Future Staff Vaccine Mandate Will Exacerbate Staff Shortage
Staff shortage in long-term care is nothing new. Wyoming AARP director Sam Shumway said that's because it's a tough job.
"I mean, you're transporting people, you're helping them use the bathroom, and so there's high turnover," said Shumway. "These are not typically viewed as kind of career-type jobs."
The industry was trying to make working at a nursing home more attractive by increasing salaries and creating better and more incentives. But then the pandemic hit. Shumway said the pandemic didn't help make the job more attractive.
"The existing staff are exhausted and are working long, long hours. And that does not make for a healthy work environment for them, or for the people they're caring for," said Shumway.
During the height of the pandemic, many people feared that long-term care centers would see deadly outbreaks and some did. Laura Moore, the administrator at the Cody Regional Health Long Term Care Center, said it got so bad some staff just decided they couldn't do it anymore.
"I think a lot of health care staff have gotten burned out and left the field altogether," said Moore. "We've had staff leave during the pandemic, not only here but in a previous building where I was at."
This hasn't helped the industry with its staffing problems. Since the beginning of the pandemic, AARP started collecting data monthly. One of those statistics is the number of facilities reporting staff shortages. In June of 2020, only 24 percent of long-term care facilities in the state reported staff shortages. As of July, it was 37 percent. In Cody, they have multiple open positions.
"We probably have, in the long-term care center, maybe three to five nurse openings. And just as many, if not more, CNA openings," said Moore.
The existing staff are working overtime in order to give patients the care they need. When President Biden announced last month he will be requiring nursing home staff to be vaccinated or the facilities will lose their federal monies, it didn't sit too well.
"I am extremely concerned. And I've been very vocal that I think it is a very poor policy, said Eric Boley, the president of the Wyoming Hospital Association.
"Early on in the pandemic, health care workers were held in such high esteem. Parades and food were being brought to facilities and hospitals, to celebrate those health care workers who were coming to work, taking care of these ill people. And now, almost two years later, it's like, it doesn't seem to make an impact anymore, that we're still doing this. You guys have gone on with life, but we're still here. And we're still fighting this."
Boley said just mandating nursing home staff to get vaccinated gives them a loophole.
"You have the potential of leaving your current employer and going in and getting gainful employment at another facility that doesn't require it."
For Boley, the federal government needs to mandate all health care workers or none at all.
Moore in Cody said it puts them in a tight bind. If they don't follow the mandate, federal money would stop coming in and that would shut them down. If they do follow the mandate, it could cost them employees.
"If it does result in some staff leaving, I don't think it's going to be a mass exodus," she said. "I think that there are people who will choose to get vaccinated. And I think that there may be some that will choose to leave the industry for a while and see how it all plays out."
Just this week, Governor Mark Gordon announced he's allocating federal money to hospitals and long term care facilities to pay for traveling nurses or ways to retain existing employees. This will act as a bandage for a while, but Moore said, for the existing employees, money doesn't do the trick anymore.
"The workers have gotten to the point now where, 'I'm just so burned out that you can offer me extra money and I'm still going to turn down that shift because I'm just plain tired,'" she said.
If anything, Moore said people need to help boost health care workers' morale.
"Early on in the pandemic, health care workers were held in such high esteem. Parades and food were being brought to facilities and hospitals, to celebrate those health care workers who were coming to work, taking care of these ill people," said Moore. "And now, almost two years later, it's like, it doesn't seem to make an impact anymore, that we're still doing this. You guys have gone on with life, but we're still here. And we're still fighting this."
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid will most likely release guidelines for the mandate at the end of this month.