Image of Atria employee being vaccinated for COVID-19
Marie Branham, an Atria Springdale employee, was one of the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccination Dec. 21 in Louisville, KY.

Some senior living operators are moving to make a COVID-19 vaccination a condition of employment to more quickly mitigate the effect of the virus in their communities.

Atria Senior Living CEO John A. Moore on Monday called the company’s decision to make the vaccine a mandatory condition of employment “the responsible thing to do in light of the threat posed by COVID-19 and the hope the vaccine holds in eliminating that threat to our residents and staff, as well as society at large.”

All U.S. employees of Atria are being required to take both doses of the vaccine by May 1. Distribution of the vaccines in Canada and the pace of the rollout will affect the timing there. 

The company recently rolled out a “Sleeve Up Atria” campaign to educate employees and residents about the vaccines. Atria operates independent living, assisted living, supportive living and memory care communities in more than 185 locations in 26 states and seven Canadian provinces. The company has more than 11,000 employees. 

“We hope this provides total clarity with respect to the vaccine’s importance for the health and well-being of residents and employees,” Moore said. “Vaccination is the right next step in defeating this threat.”

Given the evidence of COVID-19 infections among healthcare personnel — including those working in assisted living communities and other long-term care settings — and the critical role they play in care for others, continued protection of them  “remains a national priority,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December released guidance stating that employers can require proof of COVID-19 vaccination from employees — with some exceptions. Although federal laws can require employers to grant exemptions based on disability or religious accommodations, employers may be permitted to exclude from the workplace individuals unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccine under certain circumstances. 

Still, an informal poll last month by one of LeadingAge’s state partners found that only a small percentage of long-term care operators were planning to require a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment. And many healthcare workers have concerns about the vaccines.

From March to October, Atria spent about $42 million in supplies and expenses to combat COVID-19 in its communities. Despite those efforts, Moore said, the “disease continues to be an unseen threat to the lives of everyone.” He called vaccination “the highest act of helping our fellow human beings.”

Atria understands that objections exist and that there are isolated situations where vaccination is not possible or feasible, Moore said, and a company spokesman told McKnight’s Senior Living “we will review those on an individual basis.” 

“We’ve all come too far in the pandemic to not take advantage of the vaccine together,” Moore said. He called vaccination “the best way to help everyone move forward to living their best lives.”

Atria held its first vaccine clinic by CVS Health on Dec. 21, with additional clinics scheduled in about two-thirds of its 170 U.S. communities. Vaccine clinics are being added daily.

Life or death

Bloomfield, NJ-based Juniper Communities, which operates 22 communities in three states, also is making COVID-19 vaccination a condition of employment. Juniper Communities founder and CEO Lynne Katzmann, Ph.D., told McKnight’s Senior Living  it wasn’t an easy decision but called vaccination “the quickest route to health, and health is the quickest route to re-engaging with our community.”

“I’m giving people back the ability to hug their family members, to be physically engaged, to get back to the life — or get to a new life — that fits the way they want to live,” she said. 

Juniper Communities has approximately 1,500 employees. Of the communities that have held vaccine clinics so far, Katzmann said that roughly 98% of employees were vaccinated and close to 100% of residents were vaccinated. A small number of workers have waivers for health reasons, she said, indicating that they will have to don a different type of personal protective equipment to carry out their duties.

Juniper rolled out an extensive employee education campaign that included phone messages, email blasts, blog posts, webinars and personal discussions about the process, potential side effects and the vaccine process, Katzmann said.

“At the end of the day, wouldn’t you rather have a vaccination that’s been well-tested and proven not to have any negative side effects than get COVID?” she said. “It’s vaccination or COVID, life or death.”

Even after vaccination, Katzmann said employees and residents will continue to mask, social distance and undergo testing twice a week for the foreseeable future.