TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The COVID-19 vaccination rate’s climb in Tompkins County has slowed significantly, despite the Tompkins County Health Department’s best efforts to extend clinics out to an array of different communities in recent weeks.

One of the populations for which the vaccination would theoretically be most important is those who work and live at nursing homes and long-term care facilities—both groups were among the earliest to be eligible for the vaccine in New York. Yet data pulled from the state’s Department of Health show that facilities in Tompkins County are still grappling with convincing staff members to receive their COVID-19 vaccination.

In the county, nursing home and long-term care facility residents have shown a fairly universal willingness to receive the vaccine: as of July 10, most facilities are hovering around 90 percent or higher of residents who have received their shots, with the lowest in the county being Oak Hill Manor Rehabilitation Center at 86.5 percent. Within a community, herd immunity is generally stated to be at least 75 percent, though that number fluctuates a bit and may need to be higher as new variants arise.

Staff vaccination rates paint a less rosy picture, however. From the state Department of Health, numbers which are current as of July 10:

  • Beechtree Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing …….. 100 percent
  • Groton Community Health Care Center Residential Care Facility……. 88.0 percent
  • Kendal At Ithaca…….84.3 percent (Assisted Care Facility staff)
  • Bridges Cornell Heights – The Tudor……..84 percent
  • Bridges Cornell Heights – The Colonial……..83.3 percent
  • Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation Center…….74.2 percent
  • Brookdale Ithaca Assisted Living……..70.4 percent
  • Oak Hill Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center……..67.9 percent
  • Kendal at Ithaca……..66.7 percent (Nursing home staff)
  • Longview, an Ithacare Community……..66 percent
  • Brookdale Ithaca Memory Care……..51.6 percent

(Nursing home data available here, assisted care facility data available here)

Longview officials declined to comment. Requests for comment from Oak Hill Manor officials, which saw the worst outcomes of any reported local COVID-19 outbreak, went unanswered, and Brookdale officials referred questions to their corporate office.

Others, though, spoke about their strategies for encouraging their staff members to get vaccinated. Jim Zehr, of Beechtree, said that his facility’s main tactic had been education, largely in tandem with the Tompkins County Health Department. Beechtree grappled with its own ugly COVID-19 outbreak around the beginning of the year, and houses about 100 residents with around 130 employees, according to Zehr.

“They provided us with loads of information on vaccinations, why you should get the vaccination,” he said. “We essentially distributed that among our staff and residents. We had to come up with a drive to get young people interested and involved. Once they understood, it seemed like they were more willing to take the vaccine.”

That sentiment was echoed by Elizabeth Classen Ambrose and Laurie Mante, who lead Bridges Cornell Heights and Kendal at Ithaca, respectively. Those facilities have all achieved herd immunity—the second Kendal listed in the statistics above is a smaller subset of staffers, counted separate from the larger facility.

“We used the influence of professionals to talk to our staff, and that’s what really worked,” Classen Ambrose said, who said her facility exclusively employed education and resource distribution to staffers to get to its 84 and 83.3 percent. “Plus the carrot of unmasking, being able to unmask (…) We were encouraged to not use incentives, so education really did it for us.”

Obviously, education didn’t convince every worker to receive the vaccine, so Mante and Zehr have also incorporated incentives. Mainly, this has taken the form of raffles for employees. Zehr said Beechtree organized a raffle for vacation days; Mante said to spark interest in the first vaccine clinic, Kendal took pictures and “made it an event,” plus held giveaways with TV sets and gift baskets.

But like Tompkins County as a whole, long-term care facilities have reached a plateau of sorts—those who have not received the vaccine are unlikely to be swayed by the level of incentives their employers are willing or able to offer, leaving some facilities still short of herd immunity.

“[Incentives were] geared at people who were just a little bit hesitant,” Mante said. “At this point, people who aren’t getting vaccinated, it’s more of a significant conviction.”

Zehr and Mante both said that their facilities had not considered making the vaccination a requirement for staffers, though Mante said Kendal may explore the option if one or more of the vaccines advances past an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, which is the status each available vaccine is currently under.

Zehr said he wasn’t actually sure if Beechtree would be legally allowed to do so, since the facility accepts federal funding. Mante said she’d be reluctant to lose a productive staff member if the facility had already reached herd immunity among staffers.

One issue that Mante said was an underrated but significant factor, at least at Kendal: staffers caring about the residents of the homes they are working in and bypassing their own fears out of a desire to ensure residents were not put in unnecessary harm’s way.

“Many of the staff who got vaccinated, even if they were nervous, felt very strongly that it was something they were doing for the good of the community,” Mante said. “They weren’t necessarily doing it for themselves.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com