Knowledge is power.

Forest Hills of DC, an assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing and short-term rehabilitation provider in the nation’s capital, used that mantra to move the needle on staff vaccine uptake from 50% to 86%. CEO Tina Sandri outlined how the organization tackled staff vaccine hesitancy during a Long Term Care Discussion Group webinar on Tuesday.

Sandri shared her organization’s experience in light of recommendations from a task force of behavioral science experts. The COVID-19 Vaccination Uptake Behavioral Science Task Force Final Report took aim at understanding vaccine hesitancy among senior living and skilled nursing staff members and encouraging vaccine uptake. 

Sandri said that after everything the senior living workforce endured in 2020, including staffing shortages and quarantining, Forest Hills of DC was “not going to add insult to injury” with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

“We decided from the beginning that even though the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] ruled because of special circumstances we can mandate the vaccine, we decided not to, because we wanted to treat our workforce with dignity and respect and compassion,” Sandri said. “We took a nonjudgmental way of sharing information as quickly as we can get it, because it’s an evolving situation.”

Forest Hills pointed its predominantly Black and Pacific Islander workforce to culturally competent sources of information, including historically Black colleges and universities, churches and physicians. The community also turned vaccinated workers into vaccine ambassadors.

“We wanted our workforce to know they were smart enough to make a decision for themselves — knowledge is power. ‘Go out and empower yourself to make a good decision for you and your family,’ ” Sandri said. Forest Hills educated workers on baseline literacy and vocabulary around the vaccines so they could look at various information sources and make their own educated decisions.

The community celebrated workers who chose vaccination with “I got my COVID shot” stickers, music, snacks, selfie props, photo boards and hero pins. Administrators also “listened hard about concerns, what information they were still needing or wanting, without a judgmental ear” and connecting workers with the information they still needed to make a decision, Sandri said.

Forest Hills’ experience increasing staff vaccine uptake was detailed in a recent New York Times article.

Sandri said she anticipates that the healthcare workforce will show long-term mental health effects from the pandemic. She advocates for strong national support for employee mental wellness and improvements in the bottleneck of expanding the supply of behavior health professionals.