Most nursing homes in Western New York have a long road ahead to comply with mandates to have all healthcare staff vaccinated sometime next month.

While nursing homes in New York overall report higher vaccination rates for workers than the national average (60% nationally vs. 67% in New York), some in Western New York fall far behind.

A News 4 Investigates analysis of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services most-recent data found that three-quarters of the 70 nursing homes in our region that reported employee vaccination rates to CMS are below 75%, which is considered the herd-immunity threshold.

In fact, four local nursing homes reported employee vaccination rates of below 40%.

“I am disappointed,” said Dr. Thomas Russo, an infectious disease expert for University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine.

“I’d like to see a high proportion of people vaccinated in all venues in this country, right? The unvaccinated right now are largely driving the surge that we’re seeing, and it can’t be more important than in settings where people are particularly vulnerable, such as nursing homes.”

On the flipside, the News 4 Investigates analysis found one-quarter of local nursing homes reported employee vaccination rates of 75% or higher, including one with 97.7% of its staff vaccinated.

Some industry experts are concerned that the mandate for employee vaccinations could worsen the workforce crisis that nursing homes face.

Dane Henning, spokesman for the National Association of Health Care Assistants, told News 4 that they estimate nursing homes could lose between 20% and 30% of their workforce because of the vaccine mandate. Nursing homes that fail to meet the mandate could risk being fined or lose federal funding, which Henning said would be “devastating.”

“Is the punishment, or the fine, or the fee going to be negligible?” Henning said.

“Is it going to be business crippling? Is it going to be a sliding scale? And until we get that answer we’re not really going to be able to know for sure.”

Nursing home experts blamed both the lack of a comprehensive educational program and political rhetoric for why workers have been hesitant to get vaccinated.

“You had political leaders, both on the state level and elsewhere, questioning the efficacy of the vaccination, which created doubt right from the beginning, which was in no one’s best interest” said Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association, which represents hundreds of nursing homes in the state.

“And all along what we have been saying is the data shows they are very safe.”

Indeed, one of the early doubters was former governor Andrew Cuomo, who resigned earlier this month in response to a burgeoning sexual harassment scandal.

“Frankly, I’m not going to trust the federal government’s opinion and I wouldn’t recommend to New Yorkers based on the federal government’s opinion,” Cuomo said on Sept. 24, 2020, after the Trump Administration announced that the federal government could begin the vaccine rollout much earlier than expected.

At that time, Cuomo said the state would have its own review of the vaccines to ensure they are safe.

Ultimately, that state panel determined the vaccines were safe.

The good news

Despite the low employee vaccination rates at some nursing homes in the region, Russo said the good news is that far fewer Covid-19-related deaths are being reported in nursing homes compared to earlier in the pandemic.

The most-recent data for the week ending Aug. 8 shows:

  • None of the nursing homes in this region reported any deaths for that week.
  • Seven nursing homes in this region reported that eight employees contracted Covid-19 for that week.
  • Two nursing homes in this region reported two residents contracted Covid-19 for that week.

“Fortunately, we’re never going to see the situation that occurred in the beginning of this pandemic when so many of our nursing home residents were infected and had bad outcomes,” Russo said.

Also noteworthy is that most nursing homes reported much higher rates for vaccinated residents, in some cases almost double the rates of workers.

In Western New York, about 88% of nursing home residents are vaccinated and 63% of staff are vaccinated, according to the most-recent CMS data of those nursing homes that reported to the federal agency.

The top three nursing homes in our region with the highest vaccination rates among staff are:

  • Eden Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, Eden, at 97.7%.
  • Humboldt House Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, Buffalo, at 89.4%.
  • Orchard Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, Medina, at 85%.

The not-so-good news

The most-recent CMS data show 15,280 nursing homes that reported vaccinations rates as of Aug. 8.  Of that total, 3,854 nursing homes reported vaccination rates for staff at or above 75%.

In other words, only 25% of the nursing homes in the nation have reached the herd-immunity level.

In New York, the picture is a little brighter.

Of the615 nursing homes that reported data to the federal government, 172 had vaccination rates of 75% or better for staff.

In other words, only 28% of the nursing homes in New York reported vaccination rates for staff at or above 75%.

In Western New York, there are 54 nursing homes that have staff vaccination rates below 75%.

The top 3 nursing homes with the lowest vaccination rates for staff are:

  • Ellicott Center for Rehab and Nursing, Buffalo, at 29.1%.
  • Safire Rehab Northtowns, Tonawanda, at 31.6%.
  • Buffalo Community Healthcare Center, at 36.9%.

Safire and Buffalo Community Health Care Center did not return messages seeking comment.

A spokesman for Ellicott Center said facility administrators have been strongly encouraging staff to get vaccinated and they have provided education about the validity of the vaccine. 

“Ellicott Center recognizes that they are part of a regional and nationwide situation where there is a low vaccination turnout among nursing home staff, but on the other hand, we are thankful though that the vaccination rate among residents are better,” said the nursing home’s spokesman, Jeff Jacomowitz.

Russo, the infectious disease expert, said even though he believes that the overwhelming benefits of vaccination have been widely advertised, specific outreach efforts should be the first step to boost vaccination rates among healthcare workers, especially inside nursing homes.

“Going into nursing homes, explaining to them why this is so important, both for staff and residents, and if the desired results are not achieved, then I think that’s when the discussion about mandatory vaccines needs to begin,” Russo said.

Industry experts do not disagree.

Industry concerns

Hanse, with the New York State Health Facilities Association, said blame can be placed on the industry and their government partners for the lack of an educational component in the early stages of vaccine rollout.

“We need to do a better job working in partnership in terms of educating individuals and put together a comprehensive plan,” he said.

“And really, that plan was not in place as we go back to 2020.”

In addition, political rhetoric about the vaccines did not help convince people to get the shot, Hanse said.

“You had individuals at the highest level of New York State government questioning efficacy of the vaccination with no real data to back that up,” he said.

“Then when the data came out, it was clear that the vaccines are completely and very safe. But that doubt was already sown.”

The other concern is nursing home employees quitting or getting terminated over the vaccine mandates.

“They are just going to bounce around, go to home health or go do something else and it’s going to leave nursing homes very, very understaffed,” said Henning, the spokesman for the National Association of Health Care Assistants.

“So, best-case scenario, the nursing home stays open, but the residents, the people that we’re all supposed to care about in the end could quite possibly receive even worse care than what they’re already receiving, and we all know the public’s perception on nursing homes, anyway.”

To thwart nursing home employees walking out, Hanse said the state mandate must require vaccinations across the health care field, not just hospitals and nursing homes, but include doctor’s offices and urgent care centers.

“To truly have an effective mandate, it really needs to apply across New York’s health care continuum,” Hanse said. 

“Because you can have a nurse working in a hospital who does not want to be vaccinated; they could leave that hospital and go to a dialysis center or a doctor’s office and go work there and not be subject to the mandate. So, it limits that flexibility if it applies to everyone.”

The state Department of Health has not required vaccines for workers in all health care fields, but Thursday morning it did announce a superseding mandate that more health care workers get vaccinated, not just those in nursing homes and hospitals.

The state Department of Health told News 4 that the Public Health and Health Planning Council unanimously passed Thursday emergency regulations that will require “all personnel on staff at certain DOH-licensed entities be vaccinated for COVID-19.”

The DOH-licensed entities subject to these regulations include: hospitals, nursing homes, diagnostic and treatment centers, adult care facilities, certified home health agencies, hospices, long term home health care programs, acquired immune deficiency syndrome home care programs, licensed home care service agencies and limited licensed home care service agencies.

“Once filed, this emergency regulation will supersede the Department’s current requirement for hospital and nursing home personnel,” a state DOH spokeswoman said.