INVESTIGATES: Action News Jax looks into how many nursing home staff members are vaccinated

FLORIDA — As Florida’s COVID numbers hit records never before seen in the pandemic, there is one potential outbreak spot made even more vulnerable by low vaccination rates: nursing homes.

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At the start of the pandemic, the virus ravaged these living facilities. That’s why they were one of the first places to receive the vaccine.

But now, as case rates climb even higher than before, Action News Jax investigator Emily Turner discovered that local nursing home staff vaccination rates are some of the lowest in the country.

Nursing homes are now required to report vaccinations of both residents, so Action News Jax pulled data from The Nursing Home COVID-19 Public File. It includes data reported by nursing homes themselves.

One such nursing home is Isla Health and Rehabilitation Center, where Roy Lane was stuck outside trying to get in and see his father. He was in tears. “They say it’s because of Covid lockdown,” he says, “and it’s been COVID lockdown since the second of May.”

It’s a story the AARP of Florida says is all too common in the nursing home community.

Family members are locked out because of COVID protocols while staff, more than half of whom are unvaccinated, are given access and giving care.

LINK: Local stories on COVID-19 vaccines

Jeff Johnson, the state AARP director says, “we’ve heard frustration that ‘look, we did the right thing, we’ve been vaccinated. We’ve done everything we can to stay safe, but folks who are working in the facility aren’t being held to that same standard and they are being given access to our loved ones.”

At 42%, Florida has the second-lowest rate of vaccinated nursing home healthcare workers in the country, compared to a national average of 56%.

But digging deeper into the numbers, Action News Jax found the rates are even lower at half of the area nursing homes in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia. That, Johnson with the AARP says, is a potentially deadly data point. “As our communities see the upsurge in cases over the last couple of weeks,” Johnson tells Action News, “unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s just a matter of time before we start to see cases again among nursing home residents.”

There are 75 nursing homes in our area, so Action News visited those with the highest and the lowest vaccination rates.

It was not a popular topic among those at the bottom of the list, the lowest of which is Governor’s Creek Health and Rehabilitation in Green Cove Springs. There, only 6.25% of its staff are immunized.

Investigative reporter Emily Turner was met in the parking lot by a staff member: “Is your executive director available?” she asked.

“Um, no she is not,” the employee says, though the woman was wearing a name badge around her neck with the title ‘Executive Director.’

When Turner asked the woman why vaccination rates were so low, she was told: " I can’t. I don’t know and I can’t talk about it. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t know why they are so low?” Turner asked. “I can’t talk about it. I’m sorry. I’ve been directed not to talk about it,” the woman said.

The next lowest vaccination rate is at Consulate Healthcare of Orange Park, where 9.9% of its staff are fully vaccinated.

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Turner talked to a staff member at the front desk, “we are doing a story about vaccination rates amongst staff at nursing homes and this nursing home has less than ten percent employees vaccinated. Are you vaccinated?”

The woman replied, “No,” and when Turner asked why, she said, “it’s my personal opinion.”

Consulate Health Care of Orange Park has had 15 confirmed cases and one COVID-related death. The executive director wasn’t available there, either.

It was a similar story across the river at the facility with the third-lowest rate. Only 15.85% of the staff at San Jose Health and Rehabilitation Center are vaccinated.

The homes with the three lowest vaccination rates all have something in common beyond their immunization metric: their owner.

Action News Jax found Consulate Health Care, based in the Orlando area, owns all of them. Action News reached out to their corporate office for answers but never heard back.

Bayview Nursing Home in Nahunta and Isle Health and Rehabilitation Center in Flemming Island round out the bottom five lowest vaccination rates with about 16% each.

When given that information and asked if it would make a difference to him if more health care workers were vaccinated, Roy Lane got choked up, “I don’t know what to say,” he says, “I’m pretty sure. Why wouldn’t it?. Its common sense.”

So why do the numbers matter?

Dr. Michelle Aquino, an osteopath, and internist at Baptist Health says a lack of immunization among people living and working in close quarters sets up for an environment for the virus to spread- especially among a resurgence in cases like what the state is currently experiencing.

Her immunity, she says, will stop it. “We’ve got to protect our patients in nursing homes and assisted living facilities,” she says, “because again, these people are, for the most part, immunocompromised and we need to keep them safe. And one of the best ways to do that is to get health care workers, all of us vaccinated.”

The numbers support that. Mauri Mizrahi, the CEO at River Garden Senior Services, says, “the vaccine is a game-changer. It’s an absolute game-changer.”

River Garden has the highest vaccination rate among its staff.

Mizrahi says after immunizing more than 80% of its staff and 95% of its residents, COVID case rates plummeted. She says they didn’t have a positive test result for months.

“We had written materials. We had town hall meetings for our staff where they could ask questions,” she says about their push to get people vaccinated, “we had videos made. We did a whole promotion campaign for the vaccine.”

But, she says, she stopped short of making the vaccine mandatory.

While legally the healthcare industry can require its workers to get the vaccine, the AARP of Florida says it doesn’t know of a single facility that does.

That was until last week when the Veteran’s Affairs Administration put that mandate in place.

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When it comes to managing staff immunization, Mizrahi says, “it’s a tight rope. It’s a walk on a tight rope.” It’s so delicate, she says, “because we need people to take care of the residents,” and she can’t run the risk of losing staff who refuse the shot.

Once the vaccine is approved by the Federal Drug Administration, and not just on an emergency basis, she says they’ll require it and hope workers don’t leave for a facility that doesn’t.

In the meantime, places like Governors Creek and San Jose Health and Rehabilitation risk not only low vaccination rates among their staff but also residents. Only 41% and 36% of residents, respectively, have been vaccinated.

Numbers like that, the AARP says, open the door for an outbreak, regardless of the visitor policies like the one Roy says to keep him out.

The document below provides staffing vaccination rates for all local nursing homes or assisted living facilities: