Marion County nursing homes navigate vaccine mandate, COVID fatigue – Marion Star

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision of whether or not to get a vaccine became a polarizing topic, with individuals navigating priorities of safety and freedom.

A place of seemingly common ground has been an understanding that elderly populations have been the most vulnerable as they have been more likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus or COVID complications.

This is why over the course of the past two years, in Marion’s nursing homes, staff had to learn to put aside personal priorities in order to care for the most vulnerable.

However, this balancing act has become more complex as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) have issued a vaccine mandate for its healthcare workers across the country effective March 15.

This has shaken nursing home facilities across Ohio, which as of Jan. 30 had the second-lowest vaccination rate across the country for staff in Medicare-certified nursing homes and rehabilitation centers. 

Still, in Marion County, which as of Feb. 17 had 51% of its residents vaccinated according to Marion Public Health’s website, nursing home facilities have been battling COVID and doing their part to keep residents safe.

At one facility, Presidential Post Acute at 524 James Way, the staff got ahead of the curve and implemented procedures before the mandate was formally announced in order to protect its workers, according to Director of Nursing Hillary Suter.

“We went ahead and put the implementations in place back when it first came out, even though it was on hold in Ohio because we knew eventually it would come out,” she said. “So when it did come out, we didn’t have to change anything.”

According to data from CMS, the facility has 72.6% of its staff vaccinated, far above the 51% countywide. 

Amid mandate: vaccine hesitancy grows

Presidential ‘s Licensed Nursing Home Administrator Shannon Kellogg said the team is working to help its staff obtain exemptions, but it still needs certain vaccination numbers under the new restrictions.

“With the staff, we had a few who were absolutely against it and that’s fine too. There’s reasons we have exemptions, but it’s a slippery slope because there’s certain percentages we have to have or we’ll be in trouble, but you also can’t force people to do things so we’re kind of playing that by ear,” Kellogg said.

Beyond the staff members concerned about receiving a first dose, others are more skeptical about receiving their booster, with only 9.8% having gotten the third dose.

Kellogg said while many staff members originally saw getting the vaccine as the right choice for their field of work, they are now worried about being penalized for not choosing to get a booster dose.

“A lot of us did it because we think it was the right thing to do in the given job that that we’re in. I don’t know if as many people are buying into the boosters,” she said.

“With the requirements we are given from CMS – we will now be penalized if we don’t hit certain percentages of vaccination, including fully boostered.”

Because the facility operates independently of many of the larger companies that operate nursing homes across the state, it can work to getting staff exemptions for the vaccine mandate if they choose. Kellogg said making sure they can still have the staff the facility needs is of upmost priority.

“During a pandemic that’s medical, to not have nurses and aids is just absolutely ludicrous,” she said.

High achieving but COVID fatigued

Within another facility, Harding Pointe at 340 Oak Street, staff boast the only nursing home in Marion County or surrounding counties to not have a singe case of COVID among its residents, Administrative Charge Nurse and Infection Control Preventionist Robin Hicks said.

“I am very proud of this facility because if you check the records, we are the only skilled nursing facility in this county or surrounding counties that has never had one single resident case of COVID, and that’s pretty commendable and that is because our staff’s done their due diligence inside the facility and outside of this facility,” Hicks said.

With a staff vaccination rate of 73.1%, slightly higher than Presidential’s, Harding Pointe is the only facility in the county with a 100% vaccination rate among its residents.

Getting residents on board to do their part to reduce the spread was an important factor to the facility’s success, Hicks said.

“It wasn’t us against them, it was our facility against COVID,” she said.

Even for Harding Pointe with no cases of COVID reported, the restrictions coming from CMS and the pressure of the profession have added to the weight of COVID fatigue staff has carried for the past two years.

“There was a lot of staff that was against taking the vaccine because they were unsure, they didn’t quite understand it or all the same reasons everyone else has, but we feel like we’re kind of in the hot seat because more is expected of us caring for the vulnerable population,” said Hicks.

“We carried the weight of the COVID. A lot of businesses suffered and had to do a lot of things, but we’re the ones who took the brunt.”

‘All in this together’

A phrase that surfaced consistently when looking at the journey of COVID-19 in Marion’s nursing homes, from the initial fear and uncertainty to the coming vaccine mandate, is “we’re all in this together.”

Kellogg and Suter described the fear they felt when the pandemic first hit in March of 2020.

From the time Presidential Post Acute locked down in March of 2020 until the following November, the facility had no cases of COVID.

However, once it hit, it hit hard.

Suter, who is a military veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom turned nurse, said fighting COVID in the facility was the most comparable moment she has experienced to being in war.

“When it initially hit it was kind of the shock of, ‘it’s here,’ ‘it’s real,’ but I will say one thing our staff really did is they just kicked into gear,” Suter said.

The Presidential Post Acute team said the nature of the nursing world is collaborative and supportive.

“We were able to support other facilities as they went through it because we didn’t have it for so long that we tried to support them in town as much as we could, and then we got it they supported us and I know it sounds so dumb the, ‘we are in this together,’ but we really were in this together and that was pretty cool,” Kellogg said.

This attitude reaches beyond health care workers and into the residents themselves.

Hicks said through the restrictions from CMS, the Harding Pointe team has been able to bear the brunt of the strain through the residents being on the same page with the staff.

“This whole process has been difficult because we had to jump though so many hoops as far as testing, using the TPE equipment, the face shields, the masks, it’s hard to work in that equipment all day long,” Hicks said.

“So I really commend our staff for doing their due diligence and we got the residents on board as well – we made them feel a part of it. We had them wearing masks and using hand sanitizer, washing hands. We kept them informed the whole way so they felt a part of it with us, that we are all in this together.”

Story by: Sophia Veneziano (740) 564 – 5243 | sveneziano@gannett.com