Lois Bowers headshot

As 2020 was winding down, senior living providers saw the signing into law of a $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines across the country.

As 2021 started, providers continued to be affected by vaccine distribution and supply issues, the prioritization of skilled nursing ahead of assisted living in some states — with independent living ranking even lower, and resistance from some residents and staff members about getting the vaccine.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine expressed concern that approximately 60% of nursing home employees in the state were not taking the COVID vaccine in early clinics (80% of long-term care residents, by comparison, were getting it). Similar scenes played out in other states.

Many are viewing the vaccine as a gift of sorts, a solution to end the months of extra safety precautions and social isolation that everyone has endured. But if you have staff members or residents who remain leery, your fellow operators have some suggestions to alleviate their concerns.

“Senior living providers can make a great contribution by being transparent, providing accurate, trustworthy information from primary sources, and making the clinic experience a positive one,” said Susan Wehry, M.D., who is chief of geriatrics at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine and a Sunrise Senior Living adviser. “Given the impact this virus has had on older adults and their families, we want to make sure we remove any barriers to receiving the two required doses of the vaccine,” she added.

Sunrise, which in a recent survey of residents and families found that more than 79% of respondents said they planned to receive the vaccine or get their loved ones vaccinated, said its communities have been exploring how to make vaccine clinics “calm and comfortable,” including having residents write about and share with others their experiences with other vaccines (influenza, polio, shingles) that were new during their lifetimes; visiting residents in their suites before clinics, for one on-one, socially distanced “laughter yoga” to help quiet their nerves; and, during the clinics, diffusing essential oils, playing relaxing music, ensuring that “waiting rooms” have comfortable chairs, socially distanced in a semi-circle so residents can interact safely with others, providing individually packaged snacks and beverages, and sharing tips on what to expect following the vaccine, including the date when the second dose will be given.

Brookdale Senior Living Senior Vice President of Clinical Services Kim Elliott, MSN, RN, during a recent Argentum webinar, advised providing opportunities for employees to ask questions, learn about the vaccine and become comfortable talking about it; creating a culture of vaccine acceptance; encouraging discussions with primary care physicians before the vaccine clinic; and formulating a detailed plan for the day of the clinic, including making sure everyone knows what his or her role is and organizing consent forms and insurance cards in advance.

Brookdale held its first vaccine clinic in mid-December, calling it a “COVID vaccine party” and providing cake and candy canes to those who received the vaccine.

Setting an example also can be effective in encouraging residents and staff members to take the vaccine. Brookdale CEO Cindy Baier, Atria Senior Living CEO John Moore and Presbyterian Senior Living CEO Jim Bernardo are just a few of the leaders who recently have been vaccinated publicly to demonstrate their faith in the formulation, and staff members at communities of various operators are being vaccinated to demonstrate to prospective and existing residents their ongoing commitment to providing a safe environment for older adults.

All of these efforts, of course, are an extension of the web pages and social media posts that operators have created over the past several months to keep residents and their families informed about steps they are taking to protect people during the pandemic. When it comes to the vaccine, operators are providing educational materials to staff members, residents and families, and some have created formal campaigns to encourage vaccination. Atria’s campaign, for instance, is called “Sleeve Up!” And Indianapolis-based American Senior Communities has launched the “Gimme a V!” campaign, which will see the rollout of several commercials this month (here’s a look at one of them). The commercials include Quinn Buckner, former professional basketball player, Olympic gold medalist and the voice of the Indiana Pacers.

Industry-wide, the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living has a #GetVaccinated campaign, and LeadingAge and Argentum have created COVID-10 vaccine information and resource web pages. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a long-term care facility toolkit to help providers prepare for their COVID-19 vaccination clinics. 

As the McKnight’s Business Daily reports, instead of requiring the vaccine, many LeadingAge members say they are working to find ways to incentivize, educate and motivate staff members to get it. But if you’re wondering about the legalities of mandating the vaccine, see this article about guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and this opinion recently published in JAMA.

Here’s to a healthy, happier new year.