Washington — President Biden announced Wednesday he is ordering the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to require nursing homes to have vaccinated staff for them to be able to participate in Medicare and Medicaid and receive funding from the federal programs.
The vaccination requirement will be the first time the federal government has implemented any type of vaccination requirement besides those for federal government employees.
"More than 130,000 residents in nursing homes have, sadly, over the period of this virus, passed away. At the same time, vaccination rates among nursing home staff significantly trail the rest of the country," the president said from the White House. "The studies show that a highly vaccinated nursing home staff is associated with at least 30% less COVID-19 cases among long-term care residents. With this announcement, I'm using the power of the federal government, as a payer of health care costs, to ensure we reduce those risks to our most vulnerable seniors."
Many nursing homes, which rely heavily on Medicare and Medicaid funding, have not imposed such requirements, and vaccination rates among staff have varied greatly by facility. Federal health officials have encouraged nursing home staff to participate because of how vulnerable nursing home populations can be, even if vaccinated. The new regulations would apply to more than 15,000 nursing home facilities and 1.3 million workers.
The president has already required federal employees to attest that they are vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. While he said his authority is "limited," Mr. Biden said he's going to continue to find ways to improve vaccination rates.
"Let's be clear. Vaccination requirements have been around for decades," the president said. "Students, health care professionals, our troops are typically required to receive vaccines to prevent everything from polio to small pox to measles to mumps to rubella. In fact, the reason most people in America don't worry about polio, small pox, measles, mumps or rubella today is because of vaccines."
It is not yet clear what the deadline is for nursing staffs to make the requirement or for staffs to be fully vaccinated in order to continue receiving federal funds.
The president also chided GOP governors who have instituted prohibitions against mask mandates in schools, saying his Department of Education will do everything it can to support schools. If a governor cuts a teacher's salary for disobeying a mask mandate, something Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has threatened to do, the president said money from the American Rescue Plan "can be used to pay that person's salary, 100%."
The White House also announced Wednesday that the president has directed his administration to continue to fully reimburse states for eligible COVID-19 emergency response costs, like medical care and vaccination operations, through December 31.
Mr. Biden took no questions from reporters after his remarks, as questions mount about his administration's handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and as thousands of Americans have yet to leave the Taliban-controlled country.
The news comes the same day that federal health officials officially recommended booster shots for vaccinated Americans eight months after their second shot of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. U.S. health officials said the administration will be prepared to begin offering booster shots on September 20.
"The plan is for the rule to be simple: Get your booster shot eight months after you got your second shot," Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said during a Wednesday briefing. The plan is still subject to approval by the Food and Drug Administration Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
New data from the CDC released Tuesday warned of a "significant decline" in vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 in nursing home residents, who were vaccinated earliest in the nation's rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines. In a study of roughly 15,000 long-term care facilities, the effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines dropped from 74.7% to 53.1% during the spike in Delta variant cases this summer, the CDC found.