DENVER (CBS4) – One day before all health care workers in Colorado are required to get their first COVID-19 vaccine, there’s confusion about whether facilities that don’t have 100% compliance will be penalized. Hospitals and nursing homes say they were told any punishment wouldn’t come until Nov. 1, the deadline for the second shot.
When CBS4 asked officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment about that, they replied: “Facilities that are not compliant with the rule are breaking the law, and employees who do not get the shot are choosing to fire themselves.”
According to the Colorado Board of Health, more than 7,500 health care workers have not received their first shot, many of them work in rural facilities like Montrose Memorial Hospital.
CEO Jeff Mengenhausen says the hospital was given just 30 days to meet the deadline as it saw a record number of patients in its emergency room, wrestled with a staffing shortage that caused it to close beds, and continued to fight a pandemic.
“Letting our employed caregivers go because of a mandate is a really hard pill for me to swallow when good caregivers, and this only thing that is driving them away.”
While he wouldn’t say how many employees are still unvaccinated, he says every time they lose one nurse they lose four beds, and he says some employees will definitely leave before getting the vaccine for a variety of reasons including misinformation.
“It has definitely put a huge strain on the hospital system because everyone says it’s science, but unfortunately now we’re dealing with emotion.”
At Larchwood Inns Nursing Home in Grand Junction, Executive Director Melissa Latham says she, too, is fighting to keep the staff she has.
“We have 23 that’s on edge that I have to call personally again to get vaccination plan. We have seven definitely leaving.”
She says she’s been forced to hire two people just to keep up with all the testing tracking and reporting the state has required.
“The vaccination clinic itself is hours and hours and hours of staff time.”
Josh Ewing with the Colorado Hospital Association is among those whose appealed to the Board of Health for more time.
“Moving in a matter of weeks just doesn’t make sense.”
Ewing says they were told health care facilities wouldn’t be penalized until the Oct. 31 deadline for the second shot. CDPHE says while the Board of Health makes the rules, the department enforces them, and it says enforcement will begin on Friday.
In a statement, CDPHE said,
“Caretakers interacting with medically fragile patients without being vaccinated with the free, effective and safe COVID-19 vaccine are recklessly endangering others.”
The Board of Health will meet Oct. 21 to consider allowing facilities to have 90% instead of 100% compliance with the mandate. That is the current threshold for the flu vaccine. Ewing says most hospitals are at or near the 90% mark, but he’s concerned about rural hospitals that are not.
“Forcing hospitals to fire employees at facilities where it could jeopardize access to care for the community is ill-advised, especially when the state has already informed providers of their intention to modify the rules in a matter of weeks.”
If the Board of Health allows hospitals to meet 90% compliance, any hospital that falls below 90% would need to test employees every two weeks. Mengenhausen says that will cost Montrose Memorial Hospital more than a half million dollars a year.
“That’s just putting extra burden on us.” Lathan says some nursing homes won’t be able to meet even the 90% threshold. “There’s going to be closures.”
The federal government is expected to release details of its vaccine mandate for health care workers in the next couple weeks. Any facility that doesn’t comply with those could lose Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement.
Ewing says, “Colorado would be well-served to proceed with caution as we await more information from the federal government.”