Neil Pruitt Jr., Pruitt Health

PruittHealth, the nation’s 11th largest nursing home chain, partnered with Community Health Services of Georgia and A.G. Rhodes to jointly announce Monday that they are making COVID-19 vaccinations a condition of employment.

The organizations, which have nearly 20,000 employees collectively, represent a large portion of Georgia nursing homes, as well as facilities in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Their workers have until Oct. 1 to get at least their first vaccine shot or face termination proceedings, said PruittHealth Chairman and CEO Neill Pruitt Jr.

“Together we make up about one-third of the nursing homes in Georgia and thought it would be a powerful statement to say that, though we may be competitors, we can come together on an important issue like this,” Pruitt told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News on Monday. “We hope this will be the start of many providers coming to the realization that vaccination is the key to containing the virus.”

Pruitt said that it’s up to providers — not government — to issue such edicts.

“If employees don’t want to be vaccinated, they can work in a different location,” he said. “I think you’ll see providers one-by-one will come together to issue mandatory vaccinations.”

He said that 758 Pruitt patients and six employees — “far too many” — have died from COVID-19. Overall, Georgia is the fourth least vaccinated state in the U.S.

“When you look at the totality of it and see something can be provided to stop the virus, we can’t see how we can’t choose to do this,” said Pruitt, who was a member of the federal nursing home coronavirus task force last summer.

Leaders of the three organizations said low vaccination rates have allowed the virus to mutate and cause additional harm. About 50% of Pruitt’s corporate employees and 40% in facilities are currently vaccinated, the company’s CEO acknowledged. Meetings were held with all before deciding on the mandate.

He credited Ronnie D. Rollins, president and CEO of CHSGa, with the idea that led to Monday’s joint announcement. A.G. Rhoades, like PruittHealth, had already been considering imposing mandates, so the trio was soon set.

“As healthcare providers, we have a commitment to put those entrusted to our care, our associates, and our communities first,” said Rollins, whose group is the parent company of the Ethica skilled nursing brand. “Acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine is the most important thing that we can do to protect our vulnerable population.”

All of the executives realize that they may lose employees over the decision, but they believe a trust of science must prevail.

Deke Cateau, A.G. Rhodes

“This was not a decision we made lightly but the vaccine is our most effective weapon,” said Deke Cateau, CEO of A.G. Rhodes. “To end this global pandemic, more people — especially those who work around the highest risk members of our community — need to get vaccinated. We cannot go back to what happened last year.”

Pruitt Jr. said he is confident that long-term care employees will ultimately make the “right” decision, but he is resigned to the fact that some employees — as many as 10% — still may choose to depart. To stem personnel losses, he said his company has recruited 150 foreign nurses for the first time and it is prepared to dip into the agency pool if necessary.

“[The mandate decision] does not come without trepidation. We’re worried about losing staff,” Pruitt admitted. “We have 18 facilities already limiting admissions because we’re low on staff. But I think the organizations that are mandating the vaccine are creating a safer place to work.”

Ultimately, he said, consumer choices will prove that mandating a safe, vaccinated workforce is the right decision — for patients and workers. But he came up short of demanding them for everybody.

“I think you run afoul with a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said. “Maybe [mandates] won’t work for everybody. But we’re determined it’s going to work for us. We’re taking a bold step and doing it because we lost too many people to COVID, and I think the only way to contain the virus and return occupancy to normal, and life as normal, is this way.

Besides, he added, “We don’t want to be the refuge of all the people who choose not to be vaccinated.”

Mandates coming from nearly all directions

The last two weeks have brought an explosion in skilled nursing companies and nonprofit organizations issuing vaccine mandates, which had earlier in the pandemic been the province of senior living operators and a few small skilled nursing providers.

Most notably, the nation’s largest nursing home company, Genesis HealthCare, and the nation’s largest nonprofit chain, the Evangelical Good Samaritan Society, came out recently with separate announcements declaring vaccinations a condition of employment.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, expects the Food and Drug Administration’s move to give the first full approval to a coronavirus vaccine — expected by month’s end — will trigger even more mandates. Some experts have said mandates are the only way to reach necessary vaccine acceptance levels.

Mandates aren’t going to happen at the federal level, Fauci told USA Today, but vaccine approval will move businesses, including some healthcare providers, that have been waiting for a final stamp of approval from the government. Many employers believe they risk more lawsuits by adopting mandates before full FDA approval.

Anthony Fauci, M.D.

“Organizations, enterprises, universities, colleges that have been reluctant to mandate at the local level will feel much more confident,” Fauci told the newspaper.

He made similar comments while making the weekend talk show rounds, where he reiterated that allowing the virus to replicate could ultimately reduce vaccines’ protection. 

“Fortunately for us, the vaccines do quite well against Delta, particularly in protecting you from severe disease, but if you give the virus the chance to continue to change, you’re leading to a vulnerability that we might get a worse variant, and then that will impact not only the unvaccinated, that will impact the vaccinated because that variant could evade the protection of the vaccine,” he said on “Meet the Press.” “The time has come…. We’ve got to go the extra step to get people vaccinated.”