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Over 30% of Washington nursing home staff still unvaccinated

Staff members who aren't vaccinated against COVID-19 will have to take the shot or find a new job in accordance with Washington state's new vaccine mandate.

SEATTLE — Washington state's COVID-19 vaccination mandate for most state employees and health care workers will have a large impact on the state's long-term care facilities and nursing homes, where vaccinations rates are between 60 and 70 percent.

"It's a blunt message, but it's one that's needed," said Robin Dale, president of the Washington Health Care Association (WHCA).

Of the state's nursing homes, 170 are members of the WHCA alongside 375 assisted living facilities.

Dale hopes the mandate creates a boost in vaccinations. While residents were quick to take the vaccine, Dale said staff have been lagging since the initial push to vaccinate health care workers in January. 

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Sixty-seven percent of Washington state nursing home staff are fully vaccinated as of July 25, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 

Dale worries, with new variants, the low vaccination rate could lead to a new surge in cases among the most vulnerable. 

"I haven't figured out why individuals will choose to work and be around elders who are so susceptible to [COVID-19] and at the same time not get vaccinated," said Dale. "I don't have an answer for that."

Staff have decided not to take the COVID-19 vaccine for reasons ranging from political to cultural. Dale said some people are also misinformed. The WHCA has offered time off and incentives for employees to get the vaccine.

The new mandate now puts unvaccinated health care workers at a crossroads. They will need a medical or religious reason to opt out of getting the vaccine. The state said health care workers who refuse to get vaccinated will be terminated.

"Individuals who choose not to get vaccinated are no longer choosing between working at one place versus another place," said Dale. "It's whether or not they're going to work in health care or not, and that's a much different choice. What's going to be critical is to keep an eye on whether or not we're going to lose staff."

Long-term care facilities are already in a staffing shortage crisis. Dale wants to see the state prepare teams, like travel nurses, who can assist when unvaccinated staff have to be let go.

"If we don't have that, we're going to have people who are going to be in a lot of trouble very quickly because of this mandate," said Dale. "We support the mandate. We're all for it. But we also have to understand the unintended consequences of the mandate and plan for those right now."

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