The Missouri Department of Health is giving nursing homes the opportunity to temporarily close if they face a shortage of staff due to a new mandate from President Joe Biden’s administration to vaccinate healthcare workers against COVID-19.
The emergency ordinance, released Friday by the state’s Department of Health and Elderly Services, will allow skilled nursing and intermediate care facilities to close for up to two years if they are understaffed due to the need for vaccines. They could then reopen without starting the licensing process from scratch.
Missouri nursing homes have some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, and top Republican elected state officials are opposing Biden’s demands for vaccines. State Attorney General Eric Schmitt sued this week as part of a coalition of 10 states seeking to block the vaccination mandate.
The state health department developed a closing rule “out of great care,” not knowing if it would be necessary, said department spokeswoman Lisa Cox.
“Businesses may have no choice but to temporarily shut down if workers are not vaccinated, or if they cannot hire vaccinated workers to ensure the health and safety of residents,” Cox said.
A federal rule issued last week by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services calls for COVID-19 vaccinations for more than 17 million workers at approximately 76,000 health care facilities and home health care providers that receive federal funding from two health programs for the elderly, the disabled, and the low-income residents. Staff must receive the initial dose by December 6 and complete vaccinations by January 4, unless exemption is granted for religious or medical reasons.
In the initial announcement of vaccine requirements for nursing home staff in August, the CMS administrator said higher staff vaccination rates are associated with fewer outbreaks among residents.
According to the latest data from CMS, Missouri is ranked last in the country, with an average of 56.7% of nursing home nurses completing their COVID-19 vaccination as of October 31.
Some nursing home administrators have expressed concerns that they may have to close due to vaccine requirements, said Nikki Strong, executive director of the Missouri State Health Association, which represents about 350 long-term care facilities.
“Uncertainty about vaccination in all areas of the state – and especially in rural areas – is very high,” Strong said.
The emergency closure rule will provide businesses with a “last resort” so that they can reopen in the future if the workforce situation changes, she said.
“Our institutions have done everything to convince people to get the vaccine,” Strong said. But “the state will have to react to the closure of enterprises.”