Atria Senior Living announced a 98% COVID-19 vaccination rate among its almost 10,000 staff members on Thursday, crediting an employee mandate, on-site clinics and its Sleeve-Up initiative.

The company announced on Jan. 11 the decision to mandate staff COVID-19 vaccinations. But Atria Chairman and CEO John Moore said the company’s Sleeve Up initiative and on-site clinics through CVS Health also helped contribute to high participation numbers. The Sleeve Up campaign provided education, support and encouragement to employees and residents through open communication and information on vaccine facts.

Atria Senior Living CEO John Moore

“We made the decision because we believe our residents deserve to live, and our employees deserve to work, in a vaccinated environment,” Moore said. “We also felt that our early access to the vaccine obligated us to take full advantage of its availability. 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.’ ”

Atria’s high vaccination levels, along with the loosening of pandemic restrictions at the state level, are enabling the senior living provider to expand its group programming, communal dining, use of amenities and family visitation.

Moore said that COVID-19 “practically doesn’t exist anymore in our communities.” He attributed the vaccine to the “overwhelming factor in its progress,” adding that Atria experienced employee and resident embrace of the vaccine.

The announcement comes as the long-term industry has experienced high numbers of vaccinations among residents, with much lower numbers among staff members. A recent National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care executive survey revealed that vaccination rates among long-term care staff were at 64% as of mid-April, but that was an improvement from the rate of 55% in March. 

Vaccine mandates

Houston-based Retirement Center Management, which operates 35 senior living communities in the southern United States, announced Thursday that it was implementing a staff vaccination mandate, requiring all current and future employees to be fully vaccinated by Aug. 1. 

“We are merely following the science,” RCM President David Keaton said. “We want to do everything we can for the safety of the residents we serve and the team members who are so vital to providing that service. We will need to be on the offensive to prevent this disease form affecting our communities and the community at large.”

RCM said it continues to educate its employees that the benefits outweigh the risks with the vaccine. Additionally, the company continues to provide vaccine clinics at its communities as a convenience to residents and workers.

In addition to Atria and RCM, ALG Senior, American House Senior Living Communities, The Arbor Company, Civitas Senior Living, Enlivant, Juniper Communities, Masonicare, Silverado and Sunrise Senior Living have announced similar policies in recent months. Continuing Healthcare Solutions of Ohio became one of the first large nursing home operators to announce such a policy; the company also offers senior living.

No mandate yet, maybe not ever

Other operators, however, are holding off on mandating COVID vaccination for staff members, at least for now, and maybe forever. Regardless, they shared the importance of education efforts.

Tom Neubauer headshot
Tom Neubauer

“We’ve talked about it, but I think there’s a lot of considerations on both sides,” Tom Neubauer, executive vice president of sales, marketing and communications at Erickson Senior Living, told McKnight’s Senior Living. “But we do not believe that that is something as an employer that we’re going to mandate. I can’t speak for other organizations in our industry with what they do, but we believe that the education that we’ve done, and the success we’ve had, has created our own dynamics and there’s really no need for us to require this.”

Erickson, Neubauer said, has been “very, very successful with our vaccination efforts,” with more than 96% of residents taking the shot. The company serves more than 27,000 residents.

“Our employees embraced it as well,” he said, adding that “a good majority” of staff members are vaccinated. The company has more than 15,000 employees.

“There’s a feeling, a sense of safety and security that you feel at our campuses that … is really what is creating the tailwinds for us as we move throughout this new year of 2021,” Neubauer said.

Merrill Gardens President Tana Gall told McKnight’s Senior Living that the company expects to require COVID vaccination of employees at some point, but not until access to the vaccine has been eased and people are more comfortable with it.

“When the right time comes, I’ve let our team know that we will require it at some point,” she said in mid-April. “Labor is one of the biggest challenges we have in this industry, and so to limit ourselves would be silly at this point. But I think down the road, come fall, when it’s more readily available and people know more about it, we’ll require it.”

As of mid-April, more than 69% of staff members were vaccinated, with 100% vaccination among employees working in eight buildings.

Tana Gall

“That’s been a progression,” Gall said, noting that the rate among staff was 42% a few months earlier.

“That was a little scary to me. Because I believe in it so wholeheartedly, I wanted all my team to be protected,” she said.

The rate increased when employees saw the vaccination clinics taking place and started to understand the importance of the jab, Gall said. As an incentive, Merrill Gardens also had prize giveaways for vaccinated workers, including a grand prize of five days of paid time off and $2,000 for a vacation.

But probably the most effective way the company increased vaccination among employees, she said, “was just through multiple channels of education.”

“Our nurse, our physician consultant and I did numerous Zoom calls. We opened it up to all employees, and we would have them just get on and ask questions,” Gall said. “We would present CDC material, our own material, and then allow them to ask questions. And then we would follow up with people individually.”

Encouraging residents and employees to get vaccinated will be an ongoing effort, she said. “For us, it’s not over,” Gall added. “How well we continue to do it, I think, will be really important. And so in almost all of our communities, they’ve got plans for when a new hire happens as well as a new resident,” including vaccine clinics.

The vaccination rate among Merrill Gardens residents was almost 95% in mid-April, she said.