If you’re looking for a way to honor a service member this Veterans Day, advocates say you might consider getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Veteran homes in Wisconsin are facing a critical staff shortage due to COVID-19 cases and vaccine mandates.
Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs secretary Mary Kolar appeared on WPR’s “The Morning Show” Thursday and spoke about what this means for veterans living in long-term care facilities.
“We have a vulnerable population — a population that lives in a house and depends on the staff that come in,” Kolar said. “I ask, I beg, encourage, whatever I can do to encourage people, if you are not vaccinated to get vaccinated.”
The Wisconsin DVA operates three veteran homes and serves nearly 1,000 veterans and their spouses. The facilities are all certified Medicare and Medicaid providers, meaning they must meet certain requirements to receive federal funding. As of last week, those requirements include that all staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of the year.
The three facilities have already had to reduce capacity due to staff shortages and COVID-19 safety protocols. Kolar said she expects to lose staff when the vaccine mandate goes into effect, meaning even fewer veterans to serve.
The Wisconsin Veterans Home in Chippewa Falls has temporarily suspended visits due to COVID-19 cases among its staff. But Kolar said nearly 100 percent of the workforce has been vaccinated.
At the King Veterans Home, Kolar said, more than 65 percent of the staff have already been vaccinated.
It’s the Union Grove facility that Kolar is most concerned about. The facility has a very low vaccination rate and 18 new cases of COVID-19, mostly among residents. They have had to close an entire hall due to staff shortages and are not taking on new recordings.
As the state’s veteran population ages, it also declines, so demand is declining, according to Kolar. In addition, at the federal level, the VA is providing more funds for family members to care for veterans at home, also known as aging, which has helped alleviate some of the burden on state veterans’ homes.
Still, the state’s 364,000 veterans will continue to need services. And nearly all healthcare facilities in Wisconsin are pushing for vaccination while coping with critical staff shortages.
“This nursing and health care shortage that existed before the pandemic — the pandemic has made that much worse,” Kolar said. “So the solution to that is for everyone, but especially for the staff who work in skilled nursing homes like our veteran homes, to get the vaccination.”
And Kolar’s advocacy extends beyond the veterans and staff within DVA facilities.
With booster shots and vaccines available for children as young as 5 years old, the COVID-19 vaccine can be a family affair.
“Please, if you want to be with your family for Christmas, get vaccinated. Get vaccinated now, please,” Kolar said.