Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

About Half Of Personal Care Home Employees In PA Have Declined COVID-19 Vaccines

Radivoje Pavicic

Only 49% of staff at Pennsylvania’s personal care homes and assisted living facilities have gotten COVID-19 vaccines. The Department of Human Services said Thursday that vaccination rates among residents are better at 83%.

The figures were announced Thursday by the Department of Human Services. The department said it would continue to update data reported by facilities on a quarterly basis and make it publicly available on the DHS website.

More than 40,000 Pennsylvanians live in approximately 1,200 personal care homes and assisted living residences throughout the commonwealth. These residents are some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19. About 75% of the department’s personal care homes have voluntarily reported their vaccination rates.

Residents and staff of personal care homes and assisted living facilities were able to get vaccinated through both the Federal Pharmacy Partnership as well as partnerships between DHS and Rite Aid Pharmacy and Walgreens.

Outgoing DHS Secretary Teresa Miller said the department isn’t currently planning to make the vaccine mandatory for people working in personal care homes. Miller, who will resign her post Friday, said vaccine hesitancy is one reason for the low uptake among personal care home staff.

Staff vaccinations are similarly low at the state’s skilled nursing facilities. A survey conducted by the Department of Health found that about 52% of staff and nearly 79% of residents had been vaccinated as of April 1.

Miller said the department will continue to educate employees about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine in an attempt to improve the figures. She said the Jewish Healthcare Foundation has been organizing webinars with personal care home staff to educate them about COVID-19 and vaccines throughout the pandemic. Nancy Zionts, COO and chief program officer with the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, said webinars about the COVID-19 vaccines have been the most attended since the group started hosting the educational forums last April.

DHS did not collect data about why so many staff members have declined to get vaccinated. Miller said she isn’t aware of facilities making COVID-19 vaccines mandatory, but that some facilities have incentivized shots with cash and celebrations.

Zionts said her organization will try to get to the bottom of the hesitancy. “There’s something holding them back from getting these vaccines,” she said. “If it’s a lack of information, we have to get it to them. If it’s a lack of role models … who are the people who would be good informal leaders? … We’re trying to find out what’s been most successful.”

The state’s bipartisan COVID-19 vaccine task force has also chosen to lead by example when encouraging Pennsylvanians to get vaccinated. It’s not clear if this strategy will be successful; nearly a third of not-yet-vaccinated Pennsylvanians polled said they do not plan to get the vaccine.

Dr. David Kelley, DHS chief medical officer, said high staff turnover could be another reason why the slight majority of personal care home employees haven’t gotten shots. “Many of these frontline heroes may have burned out and have left and they’re replaced with others who may not have had that experience through the worst phases of the pandemic,” he said.

The majority of personal care home facilities in Allegheny County reported vaccination rates among residents above 80%; a few reported rates below 50%.

Zionts and Miller pointed to the average age of COVID-19 hospitalizations skewing younger as evidence of successful vaccination campaigns within personal care homes.

“We’re managing to get to [a] high level of seniors,” Zionts said. “We remain diligent in trying to reach employees and making the case to employees about just how important it is for them to get vaccinated so that they don’t become a conduit for bringing the virus back into their facilities where they have worked so hard to keep it out up until now.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.