Heritage long-term care company moves toward COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees – The State Journal-Register

A Bloomington-based company that operates nursing homes and other long-term care facilities throughout central Illinois has adopted a policy that eventually would require all employees to get COVID-19 shots or potentially lose their jobs.

Heritage sites affected by the policy — one of the first of its kind for an Illinois nursing home group — include Heritage Health Springfield, 900 N. Rutledge St., Springfield; Regency Care, 2120 W. Washington St., Springfield; and facilities in Beardstown, Litchfield, Carlinville, Gillespie, Jacksonville, Litchfield, Pana, Staunton, Mason City and Lincoln. 

“We think it’s the right thing to do in order to protect residents,” Benjamin Hart, chief executive officer of Heritage Operations Group, told The State Journal-Register on Monday. 

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First adopted by Heritage in late May and modified two weeks ago, the policy comes as new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising statewide.

Experts say the increases mostly are taking place among the unvaccinated but also affecting vaccinated people — especially the elderly — as they are increasingly exposed to the highly transmissible delta strain of COVID-19 by the unvaccinated.

The American Medical Association and more than 50 other health care organizations put out a joint statement last week in support of COVID-19 vaccine mandates for all health care and long-term care workers.

“With more than 300 million doses administered in the United States and nearly 4 billion doses administered worldwide, we know the vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing severe illness and death from COVID-19,” AMA immediate past president Dr. Susan Bailey said in a separate statement.

A handful of hospitals and long-term care providers in Illinois have taken action based on the vaccine mandate recommendation.

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Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health, an agency he controls, have strongly recommended COVID-19 vaccines but have not called for employers to mandate vaccinations or proposed legislation to mandate the shots.

The Democratic governor said at a Chicago-area bill-signing event Monday that 97% of people in hospitals with COVID-19 and 98.5% of people dying from the disease in the United States are unvaccinated.

“That should tell you something,” Pritzker said. “Get vaccinated.”

At Heritage, 90% of residents are fully vaccinated, but only about half of staff members are vaccinated, Heritage spokeswoman Melissa Beaver said. The hesitancy of Heritage workers to get shots voluntarily is reflected in similar vaccination levels among long-term care workers nationwide, she said.

Some unvaccinated workers have said they don’t trust the government, some think the vaccine is too new, and some think vaccinations will insert a monitoring chip in their arms, Beaver said.

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“Social media has perpetuated myths about the vaccine,” she said.

Hart said the fact that COVID-19 vaccinations have become “politicized” has helped to spread misinformation.

Heritage has told its workers they need to get fully vaccinated by Sept. 6 or be required to wear N95 masks at all times at work, rather than the surgical masks they have worn since the beginning of the pandemic.

After the U.S. Food and Drug Administration grants full approval to one of the COVID-19 vaccines that currently are being used based on the FDA’s emergency-use standard, Heritage workers will have 30 days to get fully vaccinated or face termination, Heritage officials said.

It’s speculated that full FDA approval for one of the three COVID-19 vaccines in use could come in the fall.

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Heritage first issued its policy in late May. The requirement at that time was to get fully vaccinated by Sept. 6 or face termination, Beaver said.

Heritage modified the policy after company officials listened to workers’ concerns and saw some of them quit, she said.

Some Heritage facilities have experienced “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19 among residents, Hart said. Breakthrough cases involve cases among people who are fully vaccinated.

It’s suspected that those cases are being caused by unvaccinated workers who acquired COVID-19 in their communities and unknowingly brought the virus into the workplace, Hart said. 

The breakthrough cases have resulted in one resident being hospitalized in Illinois but no deaths, a testament to the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccine, he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020, nursing home residents had some of the highest death rates from COVID-19 and accounted for as many as half of all COVID-19 deaths in Illinois.

Hart said he would like to see the state or federal government mandate COVID-19 vaccines for all health care workers.

A government mandate, he said, would increase protection for patients and reduce the concerns of nursing homes and other health care employers enacting vaccine mandates and then potentially seeing workers quit and be hired by another  employer without a mandate, he said.

Heritage may end up losing some staff because of its policy, but Hart suspects that more and more health care employers will adopt similar requirements.

Heritage operates two Springfield nursing homes as a joint venture with Memorial Health System, and Memorial has agreed to adopt the Heritage policy at Heritage Springfield and Regency Care, Beaver said.

Sites where the policy will take effect include Evergreen Place Supportive Living in Beardstown and Litchfield; and Heritage Health facilities in Beardstown, Carlinville, Chillicothe, Dwight, El Paso, Gillespie, Jacksonville, Litchfield, Pana and Staunton.

At Mason City Area Nursing Home, which Heritage manages but doesn’t own, the home’s board voted to accept the Heritage policy, Beaver said.

Likewise, St. Clara’s Rehab and Senior Care in Lincoln has adopted the policy, she said.

Decisions on the policy have been delayed at Sunny Acres Nursing Home in Petersburg and Villas Senior Care Community in Sherman, she said.

Several hospitals and hospital systems in Illinois have decided to require all workers be vaccinated. Springfield’s Memorial Health System and Hospital Sisters Health System are considering such a policy but have not decided.

Those that are mandating COVID-19 vaccinations among employees in Illinois include Peoria-based OSF HealthCare, SSM Health, BJC HealthCare, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Loyola Medicine, University of Chicago Medicine and Chicago’s University of Illinois Hospital.

The American Hospital Association has called for all health care workers to be required to get COVID-19 shots. The Illinois Health and Hospital Association hasn’t taken that step.

“We strongly encourage everyone, including health care workers, to be vaccinated,” IHA spokesman Danny Chun said.

Contact Dean Olsen: dolsen@gannett.com; (217) 836-1068; twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.