By Ovetta Wiggins,
Michael Robinson Chavez The Washington Post
All nursing home and hospital employees in Maryland will be required to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing for the coronavirus, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced Wednesday, the latest move to increase vaccinations in a state that is seeing a rising number of covid-19 cases.
The order will affect the 227 nursing homes that operate in the state and all the hospital systems that have not already imposed a vaccine mandate. Workers will be required to receive their first dose of a vaccine by Sept. 1.
Nursing homes became the epicenter of the pandemic last year as the virus tore through many of those that failed to test and isolate staff and residents.
“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,” Hogan said Wednesday.
Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader said this week that the state is seeing an increase in outbreaks at nursing homes, resulting in some breakthrough cases among nursing home residents.
“It’s one of the reasons why we’re stepping up our concerns with the nursing homes,” Schrader said Tuesday.
State health officials could not provide information on how many breakthrough cases have occurred in long-term-care facilities.
Hogan said Maryland has launched a new antibody testing program for 500 nursing home residents to determine their level of immunity. The data will be available Sept. 1.
The mandate on health-care workers comes about two weeks after Hogan announced that state employees who work at prisons, hospitals and other congregate settings would be required to get vaccinated or get tested regularly. That order, which affects about 13,000 employees at about four dozen facilities, also goes into effect Sept. 1.
Hogan said health-care workers who have not gotten vaccinated in the eight months since shots were made available to them are “needlessly exposing their vulnerable patients to covid-19 and the delta variant.”
Last year, Hogan enforced fines against nursing homes that failed to test all residents and staff for the coronavirus. He said Wednesday that the state will continue to publicly list the names of nursing homes with the best and worst vaccination rates among staff on the state Department of Aging’s website.
Nursing homes that don’t comply with the new vaccination protocols or report their vaccination data will face increased fines, civil penalties and enforcement actions.
According to state data, 79 percent of nursing home staffs statewide have been vaccinated, and 18 percent of the facilities are averaging 95 percent vaccinated or higher. The lowest performers in the state have a vaccination rate that is under 50 percent.
“There are far too many outlier centers at closer to 40 percent staff vaccination,” said Joseph DeMattos, president of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland. “While all employers have strongly encouraged and provided opportunities for vaccination, there are skilled-nursing centers where employees have been extremely resistant to get the vaccine.”
Many of the state’s largest hospital systems — including the University of Maryland Medical System, Johns Hopkins Medicine, MedStar and GBMC HealthCare — have already mandated vaccination for their staff.
A spokeswoman for the Maryland Hospital Association said the hospitals that have already instituted a mandate employ about 95 percent of the state’s hospital workers.
Mohan Suntha, president of the University of Maryland Medical System, said Wednesday that the hospital system showed similar vaccination rates as the state but has seen a “steady uptick” in the last couple of months since it announced its mandate and as it draws closer to its Sept. 1 deadline.
Hogan also expressed frustration with the Biden administration over what he called “confusing messaging and conflicting guidance” over booster shots of the vaccine for the general population.
Instead of waiting until the fall, the governor said he is urging the federal government to make the booster shots available immediately for seniors and other vulnerable populations.
Hogan’s announcement mandating the vaccines for nursing home workers came shortly before President Biden made a similar announcement that nursing home operators would lose federal funding if they fail to ensure their employees are vaccinated.
Earlier this week, members of the Senate Vaccine Oversight panel called on the Hogan administration to reissue a statewide mask mandate and to require 12-to-17-year-olds to get inoculated before school starts.
Schrader told the panel that the state’s focus is on vaccinations, not reimposing mask mandates. Instead, he said local jurisdictions have the authority to require indoor face coverings.
On Wednesday, Hogan said an indoor mask mandate is not on the table. “We think being at 80 percent vaccinated is a good step, and if we get the rest of the people vaccinated we won’t have to revert back to some of the things from a year ago when we didn’t have vaccines,” he said.
He also said the state is “not at a point” where it needs vaccine mandates for “a broader audience.”
Virginia has mandated the vaccine or regular testing for state workers, while D.C. announced last week that all city workers would need to get the shot or get tested. But Hogan said he wasn’t considering the same for all Maryland workers.
“We’re taking measured steps as we see fit,” Hogan said Wednesday when asked about mandating vaccination for all state employees. “We’ll just keep watching it day-to-day.”
The discussion about vaccination and mask mandates comes as cases rise in Maryland and in the region. On Wednesday, the state recorded 1,012 new coronavirus cases, with the seven-day average for new cases per 100,000 people rising to 15.38, a rate last seen in April. The seven-day average of cases in the region has been steadily rising since early June, reaching 3,280 on Wednesday.
Tonya Webb, a covid-19 data analyst, told the oversight panel Tuesday that the current rate of increase in cases is steeper than what the state saw between March and April of this year and between September 2020 and January 2021.
“I think we’re going to end up getting there anyway,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said of a statewide mask mandate. “So it’s a matter of now or later, and the sooner we do it, the faster we’re through it.”