Massachusetts senior care company mandates COVID shots for workers — a first for state’s nursing homes

June 30, 2021

The vaccine mandate is expected to spur similar action among other companies.

By Kay Lazar, Globe Staff

Citing rising concern about a rapidly spreading and more contagious strain of the novel coronavirus, a Massachusetts senior care company Wednesday announced it will mandate COVID-19 shots for all of its workers, becoming one of the first in the state to take such action.

The decision by Legacy Lifecare comes as vaccination rates remain stubbornly low at many Massachusetts nursing homes and some other senior care facilities, placing thousands of frail residents at risk. Roughly 30 percent of Massachusetts nursing home staff are not vaccinated, according to the most recent state data.

“We hope our announcement will be a springboard for others,” said Adam Berman, Legacy Lifecare’s president and chief executive.

Berman said last week’s announcement by the state’s largest hospital systems — Mass General Brigham, Beth Israel Lahey Health, Wellforce, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute — that they will require COVID shots for all employees convinced him to take similar action. And the fast-spreading delta strain of the virus, he said, cemented that decision. Federal health officials now estimate nearly one in five COVID cases in New England is caused by the delta variant.

Berman said the mandate will go into effect when the US Food & Drug Administration grants full approval of at least one of the three COVID vaccines, expected later this year. (The FDA has authorized the vaccines for emergency use.) The hospitals took a similar approach.

Legacy Lifecare, with 1,800 workers, says that over 75 percent are vaccinated. The company operates nursing homes and assisted living residences, including Chelsea Jewish Lifecare of Chelsea and Peabody, JGS Lifecare of Longmeadow, Deutsches Altenheim of West Roxbury, and Elizabeth Seton and Marillac Residences of Wellesley.

Just last week in interviews with the Globe, Legacy leaders, as well as other senior care company executives said they were reluctant to mandate the shots, fearing such a requirement would potentially cause employees to leaveexacerbating a labor shortage in the industry. Instead, Legacy and other companies said they were sticking with increasingly more aggressive persuasion tactics.

“We certainly know there is the [labor] risk here,” Berman said. “But at the same time, the risks associated with the delta variant, specifically, it’s incumbent upon us to make the hard decision.”

Fully one-quarter of the nation’s pandemic deaths have occurred in nursing homes; yet, nationwide, more than 40 percent of staff members are still unvaccinated, leaving the homes’ frail, elderly residents vulnerable. In April, three nursing home residents in Kentucky died of COVID after an unvaccinated employee triggered an outbreak.

Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, which represents nearly 400 senior care facilities, said Legacy Lifecare is believed to be the first long-term senior care company in the state, aside from a few assisted living facilities, to enact a COVID vaccine mandate.

“I would anticipate other organizations may follow,” Gregorio said.

Nursing homes, which were among the first to be offered vaccines six months ago, have launched numerous campaigns directed at convincing holdouts to get their shots, using vaccinated staffers to convince the hesitant and offering educational fliers and videos in multiple languages, targeted to the many immigrants in the workforce. They’ve also offered multiple incentives such as gift cards, prizes, event tickets, and other giveaways.

“We remain hopeful that we can increase the number of staff immunized through these efforts,” Gregorio said. “But vaccine hesitancy among our frontline health care workers persists and both an employer and government mandate may be needed to achieve the highest possible vaccine uptake rate to ensure the safety and well-being of the Commonwealth’s nursing facility residents and staff.”

But a few national assisted living companies with facilities in Massachusetts have moved ahead with mandates that went into effect months ago.

Atria Senior Living, a Kentucky-based senior care company with eight facilities in Massachusetts, announced its company-wide mandate Jan. 11. A company spokesman on Wednesday said the vaccination rate for its Massachusetts sites stands at 99 percent, including those who are fully vaccinated or are scheduled to complete their shots.

“We made the decision because we believe our residents deserve to live, and our employees deserve to work, in a vaccinated environment,” John Moore, Atria’s chief executive, said in a statement.

“We also felt that our early access to the vaccine obligated us to take full advantage of its availability,” he said. “For every person vaccinated, a link in the possible chain of transmission is broken and vaccinated individuals can start to say ‘the disease stops with me.’”