A new influenza vaccination policy announced Wednesday by Louisville, KY-based Signature HealthCARE will apply to all employees, residents, patients, volunteers, vendors and others in any of the organization’s assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing and rehabilitation facilities.

Signature HealthCARE has more than 17,000 employees, including home health employees, across 10 states, and more than 100 locations.

All employees will be required to be vaccinated for the 2019-2020 flu season, and anyone entering a facility will be required to show proof of vaccination or wear a mask in resident and patient care areas. Employees and residents will receive the vaccine at no charge.

Those who decline vaccination for religious, health or other reasons will be required to wear a mask, a Signature HealthCARE spokeswoman told McKnight’s Senior Living.

The initiative will begin Oct. 1, with the policy in effect November through April, she said.

“Though there are health issues and comorbidities among our residents that are hard to impact, we surely can do more about infection-related issues,” said Signature HealthCARE Chief Medical Officer Arif Nazir, M.D. “For example, flu outbreaks can be minimized by assuring aggressive utilization of the flu vaccine both by our residents and staff.”

The policy will not affect family members’ ability to visit residents and patients, the spokeswoman said.

“Family members will be educated on the impact and seriousness of the flu,” she said. “Flu affects us all, and more so the elderly and young.”

Signature HealthCARE Chief Nursing Officer Annette Wenzler said Genesis HealthCare provided guidance for the initiative. “By acting together, we in the post-acute and long-term care setting are serving our residents, staff and families better,” she said.

Such comprehensive policies are not common in long-term care settings. In May, Affinity Living Group announced that it will mandate influenza vaccinations for its more than 4,000 employees beginning with the 2019-2020 flu season, with exemptions granted on a case-by-case basis.

According to statistics released in September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78.4% of all healthcare workers were vaccinated during the 2017-2018 flu season, but the vaccination rate was the lowest among those working in long-term care, including assisted living, at 67.4%. Vaccination among healthcare workers is highest when their employers require or promote it, according to the government.

In addition to protecting the health of workers and residents, flu vaccines may help protect the financial health of senior living operators.

When Capital Senior Living launched a public health initiative during the 2017-2018 flu season in its 129 senior living communities — including staff training, preventive measures and infection control protocols — it was able to limit the number of flu infections to 2.7% of residents, with less than 0.5% of residents hospitalized. Almost 95% of communities that had flu cases saw only one resident become ill, the company said.

Moreover, a poll by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation found that a vaccinated staff could provide a competitive advantage. Poll participants felt so strongly about flu vaccination that 70% said that if they found out that one-third of an assisted living community or nursing home’s staff members were not vaccinated, then they would be less likely to choose the community for themselves or their loved ones.

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