NEW YORK — The U.S. nursing home industry’s resistance to forcing workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 for fear that too many of them might quit began to crack this week when its biggest player announced its employees must get the shot to keep their jobs.
The requirement at Genesis Healthcare, which has 70,000 employees at nearly 400 nursing homes and senior communities, is the clearest sign yet that owners may be willing to risk an exodus at already understaffed facilities to quickly vaccinate the 40 percent of workers still resisting shots and fend off the surging delta variant.
Some experts are calling for mandatory vaccinations at nursing homes, warning that unprotected staff members are endangering residents. Even residents who have been inoculated are vulnerable because many are elderly and frail, with weak immune systems.
More than 1,250 nursing home residents across the U.S. were infected with COVID-19 in the week ending July 25, double the number from the week earlier, and 202 died, according to federal data.
“It’s so easy now to say, ‘Well, Genesis is doing it. Now we’ll do it,’” said Brian Lee, who leads Families for Better Care, an advocacy group for long-term care residents. “This is a big domino to fall.”
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of health law at Georgetown University, said he likewise foresees a “snowball effect.” He said resisting vaccination mandates at this point is “unconscionable.”
Some local governments are taking the decision out of the industry’s hands, with Massachusetts and Denver announcing mandatory vaccinations at nursing homes this week.
The question has become more urgent as the delta variant drives up new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. to about 90,000 a day on average and sends hospitalizations surging in states like Florida and Louisiana to the highest levels since the pandemic began.
Despite the terrible toll taken by the disease at nursing homes, many of the nation’s 15,000 such institutions have rejected mandatory vaccinations for fear workers will leave in protest. Nearly a quarter of nursing homes are short of nurses or nurse’s aides.
But Associated Press interviews this past week with managers at 10 mostly smaller nursing home operations across the nation that are requiring vaccines found that the threat of workers quitting en masse over the shots may be overblown.
After Canterbury Court in Atlanta announced a mandate in January, CEO Debi McNeil was so fearful of a “massive walkout” that she brought in medical experts to talk to workers, met with holdouts one-on-one and invited staff to gather in the community room for meetings that occasionally got heated.
In the end, only 10 of 180 workers quit, and McNeil said Canterbury’s nursing home, independent living and assisted living facilities have reported no new COVID-19 cases since February.
“It was a gamble that paid off for us,” McNeil said. “I thought more people would have mandated it by now.”
At Jewish Home Family in Rockleigh, N.J., only five of 527 workers at its nursing home and assisted-living facilities quit.
“It’s important to educate, but at some point we have to end this pandemic,” said Scott Crabtree, CEO of Lambeth House in New Orleans, which lost only 10 of 200 workers after it started requiring shots when they became available last year. “When do we say, ‘Enough is enough?’ ”