From the early days of the pandemic, the coronavirus was devastating to nursing homes and other assisted senior living facilities. Their populations, who are elderly and generally in failing health, were the most likely demographic to suffer severe repercussions if infected. Residents often live in fairly close quarters, with caregivers moving frequently from one resident area to the next, often working closely with each senior to help meet their daily needs. This made outbreaks difficult to contain.
By last summer, some frightened family members were making tough decisions to pull loved ones out of these facilities and try to make other arrangements for their care. Getting their vulnerable family members vaccinated eventually made many feel more secure about nursing homes. Currently, about 84% of nursing home residents are vaccinated.
Then last month, the Biden administration announced that all employees of the 15,000 nursing homes in the nation receiving Medicare or Medicaid funding would have to be vaccinated. It's a measure designed to protect vulnerable nursing home residents, but it could have unintended consequences.
Why nursing homes are unique
Of course, nursing homes employees are far from alone in being required to vaccinate. And on Thursday, Sept. 9, President Biden announced new vaccine mandates that will cover 100 million employed Americans. Companies employing 100 or more must either force employees to either get vaccinated or test weekly, while federal employees will be required to either get the shot or lose their jobs.
But the nursing home situation is different for a few reasons. When a business is short-staffed, everything takes longer -- sometimes much longer. Most of us have seen this in action, as industries like retail, hospitality, and food service have encountered pandemic-related labor shortages. But while a restaurant staff shortage might mean waiting longer for a burger, it doesn't take long for nursing home staff shortages to escalate into a much more serious issue.
Most nursing home residents wouldn't be there if they were capable of taking care of themselves. They have needs that must be tended to promptly, and a lack of caregivers and cleaning personnel can quickly turn into a situation where vulnerable seniors are being neglected, even if that's not the intention of the people who are there working hard.
David Grabowski, a professor of health policy at Harvard Medical School, told The Hill that the majority of unvaccinated staff in nursing homes are certified nursing aides making little more than minimum wage. "They can make that, maybe even more, plus maybe even better benefits out in retail jobs, restaurant jobs," he said.
And unlike nursing home residents, less than 63% of nursing home staff are currently vaccinated. Whether frequent coronavirus testing in lieu of vaccination will be an option hasn't yet been clarified, but it seems unlikely, given that nursing home employees have already been subject to frequent testing to protect residents for over a year now.
The Millionacres bottom line
Vaccine mandates have the potential to leave businesses understaffed. How that will all shake out financially will depend on the numbers as employees vote for how they feel about the mandates with their feet. A few here or there who aren't on board and decide to pack up will rarely be an issue. But a mass exodus could be another story, especially in an industry like residential senior care, where the repercussions of inadequate staffing could be so high.
Investors in these types of healthcare facilities will want to keep an eye on this situation. Solutions like higher pay and better benefits may become necessary to persuade a full staff to stick around. Nursing homes can't operate without them.