Biden mandates vaccines in nursing homes, admonishes GOP govs on school masks

By: and - August 19, 2021 3:22 am

Getty Images

Updated, 6:50 a.m., 12:12 p.m. 8/19/21, with comments from SEIU Healthcare Michigan, DHHS

WASHINGTON — Nursing homes will be required to ensure their staffers are vaccinated against COVID-19, or risk losing federal Medicare and Medicaid dollars, the Biden administration announced Wednesday in a major move on vaccinations as the delta variant sweeps many states.

President Joe Biden at a press conference also criticized Republican governors who have prohibited school boards from requiring students to wear masks.

He said he has directed Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to use his oversight authority and legal action, if appropriate, to push back against governors who block or intimidate local educators from taking safety precautions in schools.

The New York Times reported that the administration will use the department’s civil rights office for enforcement, and send letters to staters including Arizona, Iowa and Tennessee “admonishing governors’ efforts to ban universal masking in schools.” Biden said he would be discussing schools again next week.

Cardona already has written Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis saying that if his administration withholds state funding from school districts that enact mask mandates, those schools can use federal coronavirus relief dollars to make up for the penalties.

Under the new nursing home policy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will develop regulations to require vaccinations of nursing home staffers as a condition of participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs.

“I’m using the power of the federal government as a payer of health care costs to ensure we reduce those risks for our most vulnerable seniors,” Biden said during the news conference detailing new federal actions.

“If you visit, live or work in a nursing home, you should not be at a high risk of contracting COVID from unvaccinated employees,” Biden added.

In Michigan, 80.8% of nursing home residents and 52.2% of staff are vaccinated, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

COVID-19 nursing home staff vaccination rates, Aug. 12, 2021 | CMS chart

“There’s overall medical mistrust that started from the beginning in the way that the pandemic was handled and the way information was delivered,” Dr. Sheria Robinson-Lane, an assistant professor, gerontologist and expert in palliative care, long-term care and nursing administration at the University of Michigan’s School of Nursing told the Advance in July. “A lot of facilities didn’t have [personal protective equipment] available; facility staff weren’t able to bring in their own equipment. During this whole process, people were dying. No more did we see the extent of this happening than in long-term care facilities.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was supportive of the Biden administration’s efforts.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have worked to protect our most vulnerable Michiganders from COVID-19 through testing, use of PPE and vaccination,” said Lynn Sutfin, DHHS spokesperson. “The Biden Administration’s efforts to ensure those who care for them in our skilled nursing facilities are also vaccinated for COVID-19 will help further protect them. We urge all eligible Michiganders to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine as it is the way we will end this pandemic together.”

Andrea Acevedo, president of SEIU Healthcare Michigan, said the union’s goal is universal vaccination, but said that “our leaders can’t simply declare vaccine mandates and walk away. We are calling on our Michigan elected leaders to hold employers accountable and ensure that we can bring nursing home operators to the table to bargain these issues for workers.”

“Our Michigan nursing home workers have put their lives at risk every day since the pandemic started to protect our most vulnerable citizens. We recognize the effects that mandatory vaccination will have on the morale and staffing in many of our facilities. However, it’s time to stop blaming working people and include essential workers in the process,” she said. “Workers need paid time off to take the vaccine, hazard pay and a seat at the table to ensure that all working people on the job are respected, protected, and paid fairly as we continue to fight COVID-19.”

The new federal mandate is the latest vaccine requirement from the Biden administration. The Department of Veterans Affairs has required health care workers to get vaccinated, and all federal workers must either prove they have been vaccinated or face masking and testing requirements.

Biden acknowledged that while he has limited authority to require COVID-19 vaccines, he will be looking for additional ways to boost vaccination rates.

He praised governors and mayors in Maryland, California, New York and other states for enacting certain vaccine requirements, and said the federal government will be covering all costs related to National Guard missions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Our leaders can’t simply declare vaccine mandates and walk away. We are calling on our Michigan elected leaders to hold employers accountable and ensure that we can bring nursing home operators to the table to bargain these issues for workers.

– Andrea Acevedo, president of SEIU Healthcare Michigan

The nursing home vaccination requirement that Biden announced Wednesday will apply to staffers in 15,000 facilities, which employ approximately 1.3 million workers and serve approximately 1.6 million residents, according to the White House.

Some states and some nursing homes already have required staffers at long-term care facilities — where they may be in close contact with patients at high risk of a serious infection — to get a COVID-19 shot.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was the latest on Wednesday, announcing that nursing home staffers in his state will be required to show proof of vaccination, or adhere to ongoing COVID-19 screening and testing.

Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities accounted for a substantial share of the earliest COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Residents of those facilities were among the earliest to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, and the latest data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services shows 82% of residents are vaccinated.

But only 60% of the staffers in nursing homes are vaccinated, according to CMS data.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 133,000 nursing home residents and nearly 2,000 nursing home staffers have died as a result of COVID-19 infections.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Michigan Advance. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.