Tidewell, Stratum Workers Face Vaccine Access Challenges

Todays News

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY MONDAY BUSINESS EDITION MONDAY FEB 8, 2021

While few disagree health care workers needed to be the very first individuals vaccinated when COVID-19 inoculations became available, home care workers and hospice workers have largely been left out of the mix. That’s according to Jonathan Fleece, president and CEO for Stratum Health System and Tidewell Hospice.

Of the 1,000 or so such employees of the not-for-profit, which serves Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties, less than half of workers have been able to receive a vaccine. And those who have recieved the vacine came out it largely thanks to luck. “We have a great collaborative relationship with our local hospitals, and we have been getting their leftovers, to be candid,” he said. “It’s disappointing we didn’t get a higher priority, like the federal government had hoped.”

At the federal level, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services deemed both home health care and hospice workers as “essential.” But the state of Florida has vaccinated medical workers primarily by distributing to hospitals and health departments, the latter group focused primarily on reaching those age 65 and older. Those medical professionals who work in individuals' homes or float between multiple facilities often end up with no space in line.

But Fleece said these workers deal with some of Florida’s most vulnerable citizens, so the oversight has consequence. In fact, Stratum and Tidewell workers have treated about 963 patients as of Friday who had COVID-19, and 141 of Fleece’s employees have contracted the coronavirus. “This is a real impact and a real issue,” he said. “We need to be able to continue to serve.”

Yet these workers deal with some of the most vulnerable patients— and their families. It’s not just about the risk of introducing the virus into homes. Workers who are not vaccinated can have their work disrupted by the pandemic the more it spreads in the community.

“If our staff is getting COVID-19, or if they are simply exposed to COVID-19 and have to go into quarantine, it certainly could put us into having a staffing crisis,” Fleece said.

It’s not just an issue locally. Less than half of the 20,000 hospice workers statewide have received vaccines. Home health care workers have faced similar challenges, Fleece said. The National Association for Home Care and Hospice last week sent a letter to members urging all to get the vaccine.

The health executive continues to make appeals to state and local leaders. He communicated with Rep. Vern Buchanan, who last week urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to make sure hospice workers receive priority for vaccinations.

DeSantis’ office has not responded to requests for comment. The governor in the past month has focused on expanding administration of vaccines into nursing homes, even working with faith institutions to reach minority communities. An executive order from the governor on front line health care workers’ eligibility for the vaccine does include home care and hospice workers, but there’s been confusion at sites about who qualifies. Surgeon General Scott Rivkees make clear at a state Senate hearing last week health departments should allow appointments for such workers.

Fleece has offered the services of Tidewell and Stratum to administer vaccines and also reach the vulnerable populations it serves, and hopefully find an avenue for its staff to receive vaccines.

Photo courtesy Tidewell Hospice

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