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State figures: New York nursing home staff lagging in getting COVID-19 vaccine

Precautions were posted last month by the entrance

Precautions were posted last month by the entrance at Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Commack. Credit: Barry Sloan

More than 40% of nursing home employees in the state remain unvaccinated for COVID-19, despite an aggressive effort to offer residents and staff of those facilities a chance to get the vaccine before most other New Yorkers could do so.

The vaccination level among staff at those facilities falls well short of the 76% of health care workers who are fully vaccinated, according to the latest state figures.

Nursing home executives said they've been relentless in messaging the importance of vaccinations in internal notes, emails, videos and group and one-on-one discussions with staff.

"We still have a lot of employees who are skeptical for a number of reasons," said Ken Knutsen, administrator at Huntington Hills Center for Health and Rehabilitation in Melville, which has vaccinated about 50% of its staff.

The reasons are not entirely known, but Knutsen said those workers are not immune to the doubts that have fed vaccine hesitancy in the overall population.

"Some have bought into paranoia, yes," Knutsen said. " … But through education, we are slowly turning this around."

Nursing homes were hard hit during the height of the pandemic, with more than 6,000 coronavirus deaths confirmed by the state in those facilities as of April 5 and allegations of underreporting the death toll unleashing controversy for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. More than 4,000 nursing home residents died of COVID-19 outside the facilities, including in hospitals, according to state figures.

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New York dedicated its first batches of vaccine to nursing home facilities in December 2020. The Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines now are available to New Yorkers 18 and older. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is open to those 16 and up.

As of Sunday, 58% of nursing home employees in the state had received at least one dose of the vaccine for COVID-19, the latest state figures show. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two doses, while Johnson & Johnson is a one-dose shot.

On Long Island, 56% of nursing home employees have received at least one dose, compared to 78% of Long Island hospital workers who had completed their COVID-19 vaccinations as of Sunday, according to state data. In New York City, 55% of the staff at skilled nursing facilities have gotten at least one vaccine, according to state data.

One advocate thought nursing home employees going unvaccinated leaves a concerning gap.

"I feel like anyone who works at a health care facility and works with our most vulnerable populations should be vaccinated," said Ellen Resnick-Tjimos, of Bethpage, whose 96-year-old mother is a nursing home resident at Huntington Hills. "Fortunately, the ones that I've spoken to have been vaccinated."

Melissa Mintz, a nurse at Huntington Hills, said she hears from friends and family who are suspicious of the vaccine, and she tells them "to do the research. Listen to the science. I understand the suspicions, but look at what COVID does. Get the vaccine."

She said she was convinced the vaccine was safe and took the shot.

Some nursing home employees are fearful of side effects and possible long-term impacts, said Dr. David Siskind, medical director at Northwell's Stern Family Center for Rehabilitation in Manhasset, where 49% of staff was vaccinated as of March 25.

"We are offering the vaccine over and over and over again," Siskind said. "We have the overhead announcements, posters, direct contact from supervisors and emails reinforcing the importance of this."

Some employees, and people as a whole, have feared known side effects, which include fever, chills, muscle aches and drowsiness.

The messaging could be working nationally, according to a poll released in March by software firm OnShift, which said about 62% of senior living workers said they're willing to get vaccinated. Only 32% said they were willing last year, according to a similar survey by the Cleveland-based group.

About 39% of workers in December said they didn't plan to get vaccinated. That number fell to 23% in March, according to the survey.

The federal government contracted with chains, including CVS and Walgreens, in December to roll out the vaccinations at nursing homes. On the first day of that program, about 125 of the more than 700 employees at Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Commack signed up. Now, about 50% of the staff has been vaccinated, said Stuart B. Almer, CEO of Gurwin Healthcare System, which operates the nursing home and an assisted-living facility.

Almer said the on-site pharmacy at Gurwin has been cleared to vaccinate staff, residents and families of staff and residents. He hopes that will lead to more staff members agreeing to take a shot.

"The staff knows our pharmacists," he said. "They're co-workers. They see each other all the time. We can also go to the employee and bring the vaccine to them. In the past, we had to schedule appointments ahead of time and wait for Walgreens. Walgreens was great to us, but this setup is much easier."

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