Some Danbury-area senior care facilities require COVID-19 vaccine for staff. At others, it’s optional

Photo of Shayla Colon

Senior care facilities in the Danbury area are split on whether to require the COVID-19 vaccine for their employees.

While some strictly mandate staff vaccination as policy, others leave the decision up to staff.

Benchmark Senior Living is requiring all employees to be inoculated against the coronavirus by July 31.

Benchmark is the mother company overseeing senior care facilities across the state and nation, including several in the Danbury area, such as Meadow Ridge in Redding, Ridgefield Crossings and The Village at Brookfield Common.

Tom Grape, Benchmark founder and chief executive officer, said the company is working with staff to support them in getting vaccinated and providing them educational resources.

“How could we look our existing residents or new residents and families in the eye going forward and tell them that our staff wasn’t vaccinated with such compelling evidence that the vaccines are effective and they work,” Grape said.

“We felt this was the only responsible choice we had,” he added.

Unvaccinated employees who have not cited a religious or medical exemption and fail to at least initiate the vaccination process by July 31 would be put on a 30-day leave of absence, Grape said. If they further refused to be vaccinated after their leave, Grape said they would “no longer be employed by Benchmark.”

The organization is not hiring any new staff who are not fully vaccinated.

To date, roughly 83 percent of Meadow Ridge’s 270 associates — not including new hires who have agreed to the terms — are fully vaccinated or in the process. Benchmark has said the rates continue to improve and that the company is confident it will soon surpass 90 percent inoculated.

Chris Barstein, Meadow Ridge’s campus director, said the facility is “chasing it down to the wire” as the agency tries to get remaining employees inoculated and continues holding clinics on-site.

Only one Meadow Ridge employee was given an exemption for either religious or medical reasons, but about 7 percent of all 6,000 Benchmark staff have received an exemption. Two associates companywide cited the vaccine requirement as their reason for quitting, Benchmark said.

“We’ve been looking at all the data and listening to our associates, residents and their families,” Grape said.

Some hospital systems, such as Nuvance Health and Hartford Health Care, require employees to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine.

Optional vaccines

But other local senior facilities are taking a different approach.

The Glen Hill Center in Danbury and Laurel Ridge Health Care Center in Ridgefield, for example, are not mandating workers be immunized against COVID-19.

“This is unquestionably the biggest vaccination effort ever undertaken and will help prevent further tragedies, especially in this vulnerable population,” Glen Hill spokeswoman Lori Mayer said.

“Through communication, engagement and trust-building, we have set high goals for staff vaccination without attempting to impose a requirement,” she added.

About 81 percent of Glen Hill staff have chosen to get their shots, according to Mayer. Tim Brown, spokesman for Athena Health Care Systems, which manages Laurel Ridge, similarly said staff vaccination rates total around 80 percent.

Griswold Home Care, a franchise organization with a Connecticut branch, is likewise not ordering staffers to obtain a coronavirus vaccine.

Cathy Howard, director of Griswold’s Fairfield County office, said the agency chose not to require it due to “personal or religious beliefs” but strongly encourage vaccination.

“We support the science behind the vaccine and believe that the more people who get vaccinated, the faster the virus will be eradicated,” she said, noting “in excess” of 70 percent of her franchise staff are fully vaccinated.

She and Barstein have found that some still have concerns about the vaccines. Howard said people might find their approvals under emergency-use authorization to be an issue or are worried about the rare complications that have stemmed from the Johnson & Johnson shot.

Since Griswold provides in-home care to seniors, employees must abide by a specific mask-wearing policy. Mask-wearing is optional for those who are fully vaccinated unless a client requests otherwise. Employees who are not vaccinated are obligated to wear a mask.

While patients have the right to ask for a fully vaccinated home attendant, most have not asked for one, Howard said. She said the agency saw a handful of clients contract the virus and die, but noted caregiver-to-client transmission has not happened in the last few months.

Although the state’s positivity rate is relatively low, cases are still circulating. Vaccination rates have dropped too, but organizations and legislators are still pushing the unvaccinated to get their shots.

The possibility of infection, although lower, is possible for fully vaccinated individuals.