President Joe Biden will announce Wednesday afternoon that he is directing the Department of Health and Human Services to draw up new regulations making employee vaccination a condition for nursing homes to participate in Medicare and Medicaid, the officials said. The move represents a significant escalation in Biden’s campaign to get Americans vaccinated and the tools he is willing to use, marking the first time he has threatened to withhold federal funds in order to get people vaccinated.
“As we see the spread of Delta and the threat of Covid cases, it is really especially important that we ensure that those caring for our most vulnerable are vaccinated,” Carole Johnson, a senior official on the White House’s Covid-19 response team, told CNN in an interview.
The move comes as the more transmissible Delta variant now accounts for 99% of Covid-19 cases in the United States and as data shows a link between low vaccination rates in certain nursing homes and rising coronavirus cases among residents.
In the seven states in which less than half of nursing home staff is vaccinated, weekly cases were 7.9 times higher in the week ending August 1 than they were in the week ending June 27. Meanwhile, in states that have vaccinated a larger share of staff than average (more than 60%), cases reported in the week ending August 1 were only three times higher than cases reported in the last week of June.
The new regulations could go into effect as early as next month, but Johnson said the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will work with nursing homes, employees and their unions to ramp up staff vaccinations before the regulations go into effect.
About 1.3 million people are employed by the more than 15,000 nursing homes that participate in Medicare and Medicaid. About 40% of those workers are not vaccinated, according to CMS data.
“We have seen tremendous progress with low Covid rates within the nursing home population and I think we’re seeing signs that it is starting to tip the other direction. We don’t want to go backwards,” said Jonathan Blum, CMS’ principal deputy administrator.
Blum said CMS officials are “confident we have the legal authority” to implement the new regulation, noting that the law allows CMS to take action as it relates to the health and safety of nursing home residents.
Biden began taking an increasingly muscular approach to boosting vaccination rates last month amid a plateau in vaccinations and the rapid spread of the Delta variant, including requiring all federal workers to attest that they have been vaccinated or be regularly tested for the virus. A slew of private companies have also since announced similar requirements for their workers.
“We are on a wartime footing here. We are leaning in to making sure we are taking the steps that we can to ensure the health and safety of Americans and we will continue to do so,” Johnson said. “Delta’s not waiting and so we’re not waiting.”