WALLINGFORD — Among local long-term medical care facilities, there’s no consensus on whether COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory for employees.
Masonicare mandates that employees be vaccinated by the end of June, allowing for approved medical exemptions.
“Our organization really revolves around us taking care of our residents, with the excellent staff that we have,” Masonicare CEO JP Venoit said last week. “Both of them have to stay healthy, and the only way we’re going to be able to do this is by the vaccination.”
Masonicare has about 1,800 employees across its senior health care continuum — with campuses in Wallingford, Mystic and Chester as well as home health and companion programs.
About 85 percent of Masonicare’s full-time employees have been vaccinated, Venoit said. Part-time employees have a lower vaccination rate, but some were vaccinated off-site, meaning the rate could be higher.
Masonicare allows employees to claim a medical exemption, which is also allowed for the annual flu vaccine requirement. Dr. Ronald
Schwartz, Masonicare’s senior director for continuum health services, reviews medical exemptions for approval.
“We really looked at it as one ray of hope to get us to some normalcy,” Venoit said, “but also a way to protect our residents and our staff from getting sick. We were pretty early on adopters of requiring the mandate of the vaccination.”
Venoit said he pretty much knew since the start of employee COVID-19 vaccine clinics at Masonicare, which began Dec. 21, 2020, that it would become mandatory. Venoit said that through weekly communications, employees have been aware for some time.
If an employee doesn’t have an exemption and just doesn’t want to get vaccinated, “they don’t work for us,” Venoit said.
“We’ve seen some devastation across the state, across the nation,” he said, “and when the vaccine came out, we did quite an extensive amount of research on the vaccines.”
Schwartz and Venoit remotely watched case studies being presented to the FDA on Phase 3 — human trial testing — and saw firsthand the data and information on side effects being presented.
“When that was approved and getting all that research,” he said, “we, as a group, really sat there and said, ‘we need to do this for our entire organization.’”
Since the kickoff COVID-19 vaccine clinic in December, when Venoit and Schwartz were among the first staff to get a first dose, Masonicare has conducted 70 to 80 clinics for employees and residents, giving out about 5,000 vaccine doses.
Venoit said the COVID-19 vaccine rate among residents is around 97 to 98 percent. The majority of residents who have not been vaccinated have cited a medical condition, he said.
Vaccine hesitancy among employees has decreased over time, Venoit said.
He said that last Saturday, a CNA came up to him and said that she had been worried about taking the COVID-19 vaccine, but decided to after reading his memos and watching the videos he did with Schwartz.
She told Venoit she didn’t have side effects or other issues, and said she now believes it’s the right thing to do for the organization and the residents. She’s even talking to her co-workers who haven’t gotten it yet.
“It’s things like that that are really helping in the process,” Venoit said.Differing strategies
Venoit said that other long-term care facilities across the state have looked to Masonicare for guidance on mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.
“We are seeing a pretty significant uptick in our peers looking to do the same thing, asking us how we did it, what’s the practice, how do you have some of your exemptions set up, what is the grace period, all of those things,” he said.
Ann Collette, Masonicare’s vice president of strategy and business development, said last week that Masonicare considered employee retention and the labor market in its decision to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory.
“We were watching a lot of companies out there that kind of took a pause a little bit and weren’t really prepared, or knew the direction to go, in terms of whether or not to make that mandatory,” Collette said.
She said that some long-term care organizations were hesitant to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine and potentially lose employees, but that Venoit showed faith in Masonicare employees that they wouldn’t up and leave.
“As we’re doing it, and I think as we get further along, now we’re starting to see people falling in line, and hopefully that will continue,” she said.
Not all are requiring employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
Quinnipiac Valley Center, another Wallingford nursing home, has completed three vaccination clinics through CVS.
“Through communications, engagement and trust-building,” spokesperson Lori Mayer said via email Wednesday, “we have a goal of high staff vaccination rates without attempting to impose a requirement.”
Mayer said that 77 percent of Quinnipiac Valley Center residents and 57 percent of staff have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 — meaning they have received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine or the Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccine.
Quinnipiac Valley Center has not had access to resident vaccines since its original clinics with CVS, but expects to receive access through CVS in the coming weeks, she said.
“Vaccination is the critical third leg of the stool, along with personal protective equipment and testing, in stemming COVID-19 spread in nursing homes and protecting residents and health care workers,” Mayer said.
“This is unquestionably the biggest vaccination effort ever undertaken and will help prevent further tragedies, especially in this vulnerable population,” she said.
Quinnipiac Valley Center — owned by Genesis HealthCare — opened a dedicated recovery unit for COVID-19 patients last May.
It’s unclear if other long-term care facilities in Wallingford are making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory and staff vaccination levels are not reported to the Wallingford Health Department or the state Department of Public Health.
DPH spokesperson Maura Fitzgerald said via email that pharmacy partners ran COVID-19 vaccination clinics at the end of 2020 and throughout this year at skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities for both residents and staff.
The pharmacies were not required to differentiate between staff and residents when reporting their numbers, she said.
She echoed Venoit’s comments about part-time employees who work at multiple facilities receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations through providers outside the facility clinics run by their employers, which makes it difficult to have an accurate count of staff vaccinations.Brand new
Gaylord Specialty Healthcare, which is not a senior nursing home but offers long-term physical rehabilitation and hospital care, as well as a brain injury and a stroke residential program at its Wallingford campus, is not requiring employees to be vaccinated.
Dr. Stephen Holland, Gaylord’s chief medical officer, said last week that many other acute care hospitals are not mandating COVID-19 vaccines, either — although other vaccines, including for influenza, are still mandatory.
He added that Gaylord is “impressed with the efficacy of the safety of the vaccine, and should it come to a booster, there’s a good chance that it could be mandated at that point.”
Since the COVID-19 vaccine is brand new, Holland said, there are still a lot of questions, and a lot of groups, including pregnant women, that don’t have as much information on side effects yet.
“It makes sense, sometimes, to wait for the general population,” he said, “where you have millions of doses out there, and find out what those results are before you’re actually mandating something, because, don’t forget, there is some risk involved in any kind of vaccination process.”
Despite the lack of a requirement to get the COVID-19 vaccine, at least 75 percent of Gaylord’s full-time employees have been vaccinated.
Holland said the number might be higher, as it’s not mandatory that employees report if they’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19 elsewhere.
Only 59 percent of part-time Gaylord employees have reported being vaccinated for COVID-19, but since many work in other hospitals, “there’s an excellent chance that most of them got vaccinated elsewhere,” Holland said.
Gaylord is a public vaccine distribution site under the CDC’s Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS).
Holland said that last Wednesday Gaylord announced through an overhead page that there were extra vaccine doses available at the VAMS clinic, so three staff members were able to be vaccinated without going through the appointment process.
Holland didn’t show any vaccine hesitancy himself, saying that he was the first in line.
“There was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be a game changer in terms of turning the COVID tide,” he said, “and I think we’re in the process of seeing that, even with the variants’ dominance coming up. It’s clearly being thwarted by the vaccination process,” he said.
“I can’t talk enough to groups about how important it is to get vaccinated,” he added.