It’s a similar story south of there at Montrose Memorial Hospital, where 10 employees chose to quit rather than receive the vaccine or be granted an exemption. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Mengenhausen said another 30 or 40 unvaccinated staff members — about five percent of its workers — had not told the hospital what they’re going to do yet, as the Nov. 1 vaccination deadline loomed.
“Unfortunately, we’re not dealing with science, we’re dealing now with emotion and beliefs and it’s a very polarizing issue,” Mengenhausen said. “And I’m trying to walk that very fine line on supporting our caregivers and also supporting the vaccine and believing in the vaccine. But I need to keep my beds open, keep my valued caregivers so that I can take care of our communities here.”
As the latest coronavirus wave has hit on the Western Slope, staffing is tight. He said the hospital hires traveling nurses, but they’re expensive and finding local workers for those jobs, or things like housekeeping, is tough.
“Having the mandate on top of that makes it even harder because caregivers are leaving health care due to it,” he said.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR NewsDenver nurse and volunteer Shani Jones puts a shot of Moderna vaccine in the arm of Angel Martinez of Henderson at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic hosted by Second Chance Center in Aurora on Friday, May 14, 2021.
Vaccine mandates also made an impact with government workers.
Employees in state government and the city of Denver too saw their vaccination rates climb higher after vaccinations were made mandatory. Also, in some cases incentives helped provide motivation for vaccination.
Eighty-seven percent of the roughly 28,000 state employees under the authority of the vaccine mandate issued by Gov. Jared Polis are either fully vaccinated or have taken their first vaccine dose, as of Oct. 22. That’s according to the state health department.
Some departments reported nearly 100 percent of workers with at least one vaccine dose, including the Office of Economic Development (100 percent), Governor’s Office (99 percent) and Department of Higher Education (98 percent).
Workers from the Department of Transportation (65 percent) and Department of Agriculture (69 percent) had the lowest rates.
The state offered a $500 incentive to 3,958 Department of Corrections employees who received their vaccine prior to May 31. The nearly $2 million in funds to pay for the incentive came from federal COVID relief money.
It seemed to have an impact. At the time DOC offered the incentive, only 38 percent of corrections staff were vaccinated. That figure has risen to 84 percent now having received at least a first dose of the vaccine.
The state said its division of human resources had received 1,203 pending exemption requests, but had no data on outcomes of those requests. State employees who are not vaccinated, and do not fall under the state’s required vaccine policy, must be tested twice weekly.
Employees working in state-run congregate or round-the-clock health care facilities and interacting with vulnerable patients must be vaccinated and do not have the option to test twice weekly. Those who have not been vaccinated, are not participating in testing, and do not have an approved exemption could be subject to discipline, a spokeswoman said. Disciplinary action could include a wide range of actions, up to and including termination.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR NewsA mobile Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Thursday, September 23, 2021.
A closer look at vaccinations among Denver city workers.
Denver said 94 percent of its 10,600 employees got fully vaccinated, while 6 percent (611 workers) got a medical or religious exemption. Unvaccinated workers who haven’t applied for an exemption will face disciplinary consequences, including leave without pay, and ultimately dismissal.
In August, with delta variant-fueled coronavirus tripling in the prior weeks, Mayor Michael Hancock announced the vaccine requirement for city workers, teachers, and health care employees.
The city said it didn’t have employee vaccination numbers for August. But, based on where Denver was at the time, it’s reasonable to assume about 70 percent of city workers were fully vaccinated then, said Bob McDonald, the executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.
“To see somewhere between a 20 to 30 percent increase after the mandate, I think is remarkable. So I think with respect to the mandate per city employees, I think it absolutely did work,” McDonald said.
He said the city’s health department looked to answer hesitant employees’ concerns, with more than 20 town hall meetings with various departments.
“So I think we were able to get a lot of people on board through those town halls,” McDonald said.
But the effort hasn’t been easy, he conceded. Seven Denver police officers sued, alleging the city’s vaccine mandate was unlawful. A judge dismissed the suit, and McDonald said that complaint would now be pursued through a city administrative process.
Other protective measures are required for those who received exemptions and didn’t get vaccinated.
“If they can’t be vaccinated, if they’re granted an exemption, then they need to be wearing a face covering. They need to be tested. They need to be physically distanced where possible,” McDonald said.
The same is true in nursing homes and assisted living centers, said Farmer. Unvaccinated workers would have to abide by rules that require full PPE, personal protective equipment. That means “gown, mask, face shield, gloves, all that stuff, at all times,” he said, plus daily rapid testing, as opposed to biweekly testing for those who are vaccinated.
“Try out an N95 mask and wear it for a full day,” Farmer said. “It’s not pleasant, there’s nothing enjoyable about it.”
The mandate prompted a wide range of results.
In big Front Range hospital systems, the ones most likely to deal with the most and most ill COVID-19 patients, in general compliance is high.
In some government departments and places more likely to suffer staffing challenges, like group homes and rural health facilities, the struggles in reaching a 90 percent-plus vaccination level, and keeping decent staffing levels, are clear.
That difficulty has prompted the state’s main hospital group, the Colorado Hospital Association, to request the board of health lower the vaccination mandate goal down to 90 percent from 100 percent. A CHA spokeswoman said that the threshold is the same that’s been required for health workers for a flu vaccine mandate for nearly a decade.
Meantime, the true picture of the impact of vaccine mandates is at this point a bit murky. Some health systems, like SCL Health, Centura and Banner, declined to release their data until they’d submitted it to the state on Monday.