CHELSEA – Guided by Jewish values, mindful of the cases and deaths long-term care facilities suffered at the start of the pandemic, and witnessing the arrival of the highly transmissible delta variant, Chelsea Jewish Lifecare recently announced it would require all 1,800 employees across the Legacy Lifecare network to get the shot.
The nonprofit says 80 percent of staff already have rolled up their sleeves.
The senior care organization is one of the first providers of its kind to mandate vaccines for staff and volunteers in Massachusetts. This policy is consistent with the requirement employees get a flu shot.
The mandate will go into effect once the Food and Drug Administration grants final approval of one of the three available vaccines, which are now being administered under emergency use authorization. That could be granted in a couple of months.
“We all saw what this virus can do just to the broader society in the course of last year,” said Adam Berman, president of Chelsea Jewish Lifecare, which has campuses in Chelsea and Peabody with about 1,100 employees.
Not every staff member will be required to get a COVID shot, Berman said, because, based on the law, those with sincerely held religious beliefs or medical contraindications – such as a severe allergic reaction to vaccine components – would be exempt.
During the start of the pandemic, senior care providers were especially hard hit by COVID-19.
Chelsea Jewish Lifecare has hundreds of residents in its care. The nonprofit senior care provider is a founding member of Legacy Lifecare, a nonprofit management resources collaborative that oversees JGS Lifecare in Longmeadow, Deutsches Altenheim of West Roxbury, and the Elizabeth Seton and Marillac residences in Wellesley.
Berman said they have had very few cases during the past six to eight months, and while many restrictions have been lifted, Chelsea Jewish Lifecare is still mindful of what happened in the past and are hearing from epidemiologists and others about the spread of the delta variant in Massachusetts.
The delta variant is a highly transmissible form of the coronavirus, but the vaccines are still proving highly effective at preventing severe disease after exposure to it following two doses, according to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
While Chelsea Jewish Lifecare has topped the national goal for vaccinations within long-term care facilities of 75 percent, this still leaves hundreds of staff unvaccinated.
Berman, who is also the Legacy Lifecare president and CEO and a Lynnfield resident, said management decided to mandate the vaccines as a way to lead the charge to do so in the Bay State.
In the week since the mandate was announced earlier this month, the percentage of vaccinated staff jumped from 75 percent to 80 percent, Berman said.
Berman, who also has been vaccinated, said he understands why some may be hesitant.
“For those who have just general concerns or anxieties around it,” Berman said, “we are trying to deal with this in line with our company values, in that we are trying to be very compassionate and understanding and provide education and opportunity for people to express their concerns, but at the end of the day, our residents and their safety have to come first.”
While he doesn’t think many employees will leave, “If they do, we know we are making the best decision for our residents.”
The company is dealing with the staff’s vaccine concerns on a case-by-case basis, Berman said.
The organizing principle behind much of what Chelsea Jewish Lifecare does, Berman said, is centered around tikkun olam, a concept in Judaism of repairing the world.
In addition, the early days of the pandemic shaped thinking about vaccine mandates.
According to a May 2020 article in the Jewish Journal, Barry Berman of Boxford, the CEO of Chelsea Jewish Lifecare and Adam Berman’s father, described the spring of 2020 as one of the most difficult periods in the organization’s 100-year history.
“Certainly, last year, when coronavirus came, we had limited information about the disease,” Adam Berman said. “We didn’t know best how to prevent it, and then once we even knew how to mitigate against the risks, still then the virus was spreading. And again, that’s beyond our walls, that’s just what of course transpired.
“But now, you know,” Berman said, “we have a tool, the most effective tool, a tool that is far more effective than just good infection control practices.”
“And what’s really made the difference and stopped the virus in its tracks in many respects are the vaccines,” Berman added.
Since the vaccines became available, there has been no spread within their campuses, Berman said. They do see cases come from the hospital who have yet to be diagnosed. These cases “have been very few and far between, and those tend to be unvaccinated individuals. We have seen no vaccinated spread whatsoever since we started vaccinating.”
Katherine Santos, Chelsea Jewish Lifecare’s vice president of strategy and operational excellence, helped plan a “Superheroes Savings Lives” campaign in both English and Spanish to celebrate frontline staff.
Santos said word of the vaccine mandate has already meant more staff getting the shot.
“Education is absolutely key to making sure they are informed and have the right information about the vaccine,” Santos said.