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Vaccine Mandates For Employees Work In Long Term-Care Facilities, One Company Says

Yunia Gonzalez, regional vice president of Atria Senior Living, gets vaccinated.
Atria Senior Living
Yunia Gonzalez, regional vice president of Atria Senior Living, gets vaccinated.

Atria Senior Living operates nine assisted living communities in Florida and has been mandating that all employees get vaccinated since January.

Federal guidance released last week says employers have the authority to mandate that workers get vaccinated for COVID-19. That's good news for some companies that already took that step.

Atria Senior Livingwas among the first companies in Florida to voluntarily enact a vaccine mandate back in January, months before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took action.

The company, which operates nine assisted living communities throughout Florida, including three in the greater Tampa Bay area, says all of its employees are now vaccinated.

The mandate keeps seniors who live in the company's facilities safer and provides peace of mind to their families, said Yunia Gonzalez, regional vice president of Atria.

“It's just to help create a safer environment for people. That was the big factor,” Gonzalez said. ”We have the vaccine as the first line of defense in protecting our communities. It's about ending this disease which has taken so many lives from us.”

With more than half of adult Americans now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, many companies are considering whether to enact vaccine mandates in an attempt to speed up vaccinations and improve workplace safety.

The EEOC’s decision comes as employees are returning to work and companies are determining how to safely accommodate them. The issue has remained of particular concern among long-term care facilities.

The AARP reported last month that cases of COVID-19 among Florida’s nursing home residents and staff are above the national average. Experts say part of the problem is because only about 38% of long-term care workers are vaccinated.

Atria launched the "Sleeve Up Atria" initiative in January, aiming to vaccinate more than 20,000 residents and more than 12,000 employees. The vaccine mandate was part of that initiative.

The response from employees has been overwhelmingly positive and hasn’t stopped people from applying to work at Atria, Gonzalez said.

And the mandate is popular with residents and their families, she said.

“Families feel at ease with that 100% vaccination rate and the immunity that provides, and so people are happy; they're so excited about getting back to some normalcy in their lives again,” she said.

The move has not come without objections, Gonzalez said. When they do arise, the company’s focus has been on understanding concerns and ensuring employees have access to reliable information on the vaccine, she said.

However, Gonzalez said, without a statewide mandate for all businesses, the coronavirus will continue to pose a risk to seniors and cases may continue to climb.

“I think by not mandating it puts everyone at risk,” she said. “We serve a population that is the most susceptible to this disease, and we have seen it in the numbers. We needed to make it a mandate. It's about ending this disease which has taken so many lives from us.”

Ultimately, Gonzalez said, the company feels satisfied with the implementation of the vaccine mandate and the improvements the policy has brought in workplace safety.

“I couldn't be more proud and happier with the decision we made,” she said. “And so for us, there's no question about it, it was the right thing to do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have this opportunity to reach herd immunity like we are seeing now.”

William Marlow is the WUSF/Health News Florida intern for the summer of 2021.