James M. Berklan

It’s clear to see that the game has changed in long-term care over the past few weeks. Not that anyone wants to portray soaring COVID-19 infection and death rates as anything playful.

But a game-changer — vaccines — is now in play. The big question is whether leaders can get enough personnel to engage to make it meaningful enough.

My inbox and social media channels have been filled this week with emails and posts from many proud providers showing off first-round inoculations. Bravo. A movement has started. It’s a time to be optimistic and proud. And embarrassed.

If we’re looking at the industry overall and are honest, long-term care employee vaccination rates have been a big disappointment. Various provider leaders have either dodged questions about it or couched reactions, but the deep-down feeling is the same: It must be better, and it likely will be. But how much?

Industry lobbyists worked hard to make sure long-term care residents and workers were put near the head of the line for vaccinations, and they should be praised for helping make it happen.

If only the same could be said about the people they lead. While certainly thousands of skilled nursing employees are to be congratulated for offering their arms to the inoculators, all long-term care workers collectively suffer every time there’s a story that only 11% or 20% or even 40% of a facility’s workers have been vaccinated. Local mileage will vary, of course, but it’s disappointing how even some of the highest quality operators are saying they hope an extra round of shot-offerings will get their worker conversion rate up to 50%.

The world is watching. It’s no time to look the vaccine gift horse in the mouth, lest it soon be seen galloping toward more accepting groups. Nobody in this profession would turn down a case of masks, gowns or gloves, and this should be no different.

Of course, it comes down to individual concerns and preferences, and operators cannot be held fully responsible for their workers’ fears and beliefs. Yet they can do more.

The good news is operators in most places realize what’s at stake and have revved up internal marketing efforts. Surely you’ve seen, or even been in, some of the vaccination photos I’ve already alluded to.

They are a good thing, no doubt. For one, it gives everybody something positive to focus on, and isn’t that a refreshing change? Let the contest begin to see who can achieve the highest percentage.

But that also exposes a problem. This should be a race to the top, not a race from the bottom. The obvious need is to get more workers on the vaccination bandwagon.

A new kind of recruiting challenge

While there have been some noble efforts at this, there’s also been a lot of preaching to the choir. What I’d like to see in these ubiquitous photo galleries is more examples of hard-to-convince individuals accepting the lifesaving needle. If you want more nurses to vaccinate, show more of THEM doing the right thing; if you want more aides to do it, take and distribute tons of photos of THEM getting the shot.

It’s a guarantee that if a basketball coach wants to recruit some tall players to come to his college, he enlists the help of other tall players who have done so already and thrived. If you want to get a kid who’s afraid of the water to learn how to swim, you’d certainly do well to find a popular youngster who was similarly frightened and overcame it — and then play up that admirable individual front and center as a great role model.

On a related theme, I’ve shaken my head from the start of the pandemic. I’ve wondered why authorities haven’t flooded the airwaves and social media avenues with young actors, popular musicians and star athletes endorsing the use of masks, social distancing and other desirable safe practices. Instead, it’s mostly been older politicians and authority figures.

We’re all in this together, no matter what one’s personal risk profile is, so what’s good for one is good for all. The vaccine does not erase virus transmissibility, so the message up and down the line should be that even if you or a friend are safely vaccinated, others may still be at risk.

Getting enough of the right people more involved as role models is what you call a no-brainer, folks, and it hasn’t happened enough.

But it still can for nursing facilities. Current vaccination levels are simply unacceptable, even if they nudge up a little in the coming days, as predicted.

To providers, I say build on current efforts and target your necessary groups more than ever. 

If needed resources such as vaccine doses and the people to administer them remain plentiful enough, it will be meaningless if there aren’t enough caregiver arms for them to serve.

Follow Executive Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.