By Alan Gionet

HOLYOKE, Colo. (CBS4) – Melissa Memorial Hospital is caught in the middle of a political battle, one that has infected health care.

“I want them to separate themselves, I really do. I’d like politics to go where politics does well and I’d like health care to go where we need to be … bringing those ideas together and really coming up with choices for people that make sense,” said CEO Cathy Harshbarger.

Harshbarger has been dealing with meeting the state’s mandate that hospitals vaccinate all workers or have them file medical or religious exemptions. First shots were supposed to be given by Sept. 30 and second shots completed by the end of October. Melissa Memorial is in Holyoke, a town of about 2500 in Phillips County near the northeast corner of the state.

“I live in a very conservative community and so a lot of the politics have gotten in the middle of this pandemic. It’s been playing out in the community,” said Harshbarger. “I’ve had people threaten me, actually. I’ve had people saying they were coming after me. I’ve had opposite — where you ‘better be sure that you’re trying to take care of the community’ versus listening to your employees ‘who are whining.'”

As communities split, the Colorado Hospital Association is working with hospitals trying to figure out how to get as many workers vaccinated as possible.

“We know that at this stage, convincing people to get vaccinated is not as easy as blasting out a message of when the next vaccine clinic is. It really takes those in depth conversations, the willingness to listen and engage,” said Cara Welch, senior director of communications.

When her workers were reluctant said Harshbarger, “Then it becomes really talking to people about choice. I focus on the choice. You have the choice to work here …” or not. At the beginning of September when the state health board announced the vaccination requirement, only about a third of workers at the hospital were vaccinated. That meant a lot of conversations. Many of the workers did get vaccinated, but not all. When faced with a deadline, the CHA notes they’re seeing minds change. “When it comes down to the final day they’ll choose to follow that and go with their heart and continue to provide care for their community and that they’ll take this vaccine,” said Welch.

(credit: Melissa Memorial Hospital)

At Melissa Memorial, there are about 110 workers. Eighteen are seeking religious exemptions that still have to be approved by the state. Four have filed medical exemptions. Subtracting those, Harshbarger says she was able to reach 90% of the staff, but that involved firing three workers who refused to get vaccinated. But the hospital is still filing a waiver because there are still more unvaccinated. She is hoping the state will dial back the requirement to 90%.

“These consequences, I call then unintended consequences, can really spiral out of control if we don’t have some people sitting around the table really realizing when the impact would be.”

Melissa Memorial is applying for a waiver from the state, which it hopes will say 90% will do. The Hospital Association is backing a change when the state board of health votes mid-month.

“CHA has advocated for changing the 100% to 90%. That would mirror what we already have in place with our flu vaccine mandate for health care workers. It has been in place for a decade and it’s very successful.”

Losing three workers for Melissa Memorial is a significant problem. If more have to go, it has the makings of a crisis.

“You want your staff to be happy. You don’t want them to be unhappy, so we’ve done the best thing that we know how to do. But I think we have to care about the fact that there’s a pandemic.”

The federal government is also expected to create a vaccine mandate for health care workers to extend nationwide. There’s no timeline yet. But looking ahead, Harshbarger says that could mean losing approval to treat patients on federal benefits like Medicare. Medicare and Medicaid make up about two thirds of their budget.

She’s frustrated that the discussion of vaccination has taken on a political bent. That it has been described by some in town as “tyranny.”

“I’m frustrated by that because what it has done is growing into people doing what they do for all political things pulling at sides. There are sides for this and sides for that. Some people really genuinely believe that this is about their freedoms and don’t want to participate in the vaccine, when really this is a health care issue.”

Alan Gionet