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New Illinois Data Show High Rate Of Unvaccinated Nursing Home Staff

Bloomington Rehabilitation and Health Care Center sign
Ryan Denham
Bloomington Rehabilitation and Health Care Center had 11 COVID-related deaths last year, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, but only 20% of its staff has received the COVID vaccine.

Long-term care facilities were among the hardest hit by COVID-19 in McLean County last year. Nursing home employees also were put at the front of the line to receive COVID vaccines when they became available in late 2020.

But many nursing home employees have passed on getting the vaccine.

Records recently posted online by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) show three long-term care facilities in McLean County — Bloomington Rehabilitation and Health Care Center, Luther Oaks and Arcadia Care of Bloomington — have staff vaccination rates of less than 25% as of July 25.

Some facilities showed much greater vaccination rates. The Loft Rehabilitation and Nursing in Normal reported all staff was vaccinated. Westminster Village showed a 94% vaccination rate, and 86% of McLean County Nursing Home workers have been vaccinated, based on IDPH data.

An advocate for nursing home residents said facility operators need to figure out why some staff members are reluctant to vaccinate. Angie Baker, regional ombudsman with the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging, said unvaccinated staff pose health risks to nursing home residents as the Delta variant fuels a new wave of coronavirus infections.

“I think there is a growing concern while we are all helpless to force them to do that,” Baker said. “The only thing I can think of is to (have some) honest conversations about the barriers. Why are they not getting this vaccination?”

Baker suggested it’s possible some health care workers have been unable to get time off either to get the vaccine, or to recover if they have a bad reaction to the shot. She said transportation could be a barrier for others.

Baker said she'd like to see more nursing homes mandate staff get the COVID vaccine, but many have been reluctant to require it.

Vaccine mandates

Heritage Operations Group is one of the few to issue a mandate. Heritage runs senior care facilities in Bloomington, Normal and more than 50 other locations in Illinois.

CEO Ben Hart said Heritage “modified” the vaccine requirement it implemented in June. Heritage will require unvaccinated staff to wear an N-95 mask starting Sept. 6. Hart said Heritage will make the vaccine a condition of employment after the Food and Drug Administration gives the vaccine full approval. It's authorized for emergency use now.

Hart said some staff quit over the mandate and others pushed back against the requirement. He wants the state or federal governments to mandate all health care workers get vaccinated, adding that would keep employees from jumping to other facilities.

“People can walk down the street and go to a different health care provider where those vaccine mandates and protections aren’t in place,” Hart said.

There's already a major shortage of health care workers, he said, and some Heritage facilities lost more than 2% of their staff because of its vaccine mandate, but he didn't have a specific number.

Westminster Village of Bloomington made the COVID vaccination a condition of employment at the start of the year.

Chief Operating Officer Matt Riehle said he worried some staff would leave.

“That was probably the first, second, third and fourth question as soon as we started those discussions. Hopefully, Westminster has always tried to lead from the position of doing the right thing,” Riehle said.

The retirement community allows religious and medical exemptions. Riehle said two staffers left because of the mandate.

Luther Oaks has not mandated the vaccine. Executive Director Doug Rutter said management has tried to encourage and educate its workers on getting the vaccine and provided incentives to vaccinate.

“We respect the decision to receive the vaccine is a private one that each team member and resident has to make for themselves,” said Rutter, noting the vaccination rate among the retirement community’s residents is 95%.

The Biden administration is considering withholding federal funds to various institutions to get more people vaccinated. California is the only state in the U.S. that has mandated the vaccine for health care workers.

'Combating misinformation'

Heritage Health of Normal had one of the highest COVID death tolls in the county last year as 20 residents died. Its staff vaccination rate is 35%, while the Heritage facility in Bloomington has a staff vaccination rate of 88%.

Hart said he has held listening sessions with staff to hear their concerns about the vaccine. He said some have been misinformed by social media and untrustworthy websites.

“Some of them are reasonable in nature and some of them quite honestly are unfounded and unreasonable,” Hart said. “They believe the vaccine causes death and it causes all kinds of other medical outcomes that are negative in nature. It is combating a lot of misinformation that is out there in the world and trying to get through to people to explain to them what the scientific data and facts are.”

Baker said long-term operators should do all they can to prevent more outbreaks that put residents at risk and force them into isolation.

“The residents are the folks who are suffering the most when a facility has to shut down,” Baker said. “They’ve already endured a year and a half of this. Even for a couple days is unfair.”

Representatives for Arcadia Care and Bloomington Rehab owner Petersen Health Care did not respond to requests for comment.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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