The Maryland Department of Health will require all hospital and nursing home workers in the state to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or undergo frequent screening for the virus, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday afternoon.
Currently, 79% of nursing home workers in the state are vaccinated, and at some nursing homes over 95% of their staffs have received the inoculation, according to Hogan. But there are other nursing homes where the percentage of workers who have received their full dose is as low as 40%, which Hogan said is “unacceptable and which is endangering the lives of nursing home residents.”
Vaccination rates among hospital workers are similarly in the upper-70%, Maryland Secretary of Health Dennis Schrader said. Those numbers are consistent with statewide rates; 79.5% of people over the age of 18 in Maryland have received at least their first dose. Vaccinations have also increased in recent weeks, with daily vaccination rates increasing 20% over the past month.
The state hopes to continue to boost those numbers by requiring workers to get their first dose of the vaccine by Sept. 1 or be subject to regular testing for COVID-19, especially as the Delta variant of the coronavirus — a more transmissible strain of the virus that now makes up 100% of Maryland’s cases, according to Hogan — continues to cause increased spread of the virus both in Maryland and the nation.
“We are concerned that the delta variant surge has led to an increase in infections among staff in nursing homes, which has been a consistent source of outbreaks in these facilities throughout the pandemic,” he said.
Nursing homes that fail to follow these vaccination protocols or that do not report vaccination data will be subject to fines, civil penalties and enforcement actions, the governor said.
Also on Wednesday afternoon, President Joe Biden will announce that nursing home workers will be required to receive the shot for the facility to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding, according to the Associated Press. The mandate will be issued in the form of a regulation by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and could take effect as soon as next month.
Nursing homes were a hot spot for severe COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the pandemic, because the virus is more dangerous and deadly for elderly people and is more likely to spread in congregate settings.
Maryland took steps early in the pandemic to try to curb these outbreaks, such as requiring facilities to provide staff members with personal protective equipment and forming “strike teams” to provide support to nursing homes.
Most recently, the state has worked to provide transparency about both resident and staff vaccination rates at the state’s 227 nursing homes through the Skilled Nursing Facilities Vaccination Dashboard, a tool that shows the self-reported vaccination rates at each facility.
Vaccine protocols among health care professionals have already proven successful in Maryland, according to Mohan Suntha, president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System, which announced in June that the 13-hospital system would mandate its workers get vaccinated by Sept. 1.
“We started at about that 75% vaccination rate, we’ve seen it steadily grow, and we expect it to continue to grow significantly as we get closer to that deadline,” he said.
Prior to Hogan’s announcement, a group of hospitals that employs about 95% of all the hospital workers in the state had already announced deadlines for their employees to be vaccinated, or stated their intention to require vaccinations in the future, according to Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association.
“Two and a half months before the governor’s mandate, Maryland hospitals took this step to ensure the safety of their patients, employees and communities,” he said.
However, Hogan’s mandate pushes the deadline up for some of those hospitals, like LifeBridge Health, which had previously announced a deadline of Nov. 1.
In his announcement, Hogan also addressed the subject of COVID-19 booster shots, following Biden’s announcement Wednesday morning that those shots likely wouldn’t be made widely available until September. Hogan called on federal officials to make booster shots available immediately for seniors and other vulnerable populations, and he announced an antibody testing pilot program that will work ascertain the level of immunity of 500 nursing home residents across the state.
He also called on the administration to expedite both the FDA’s full approval of the COVID-19 vaccines and its approval of the vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds, many of whom are scheduled to start in-person school in a matter of weeks.