State vaccine mandate for health care workers boosts uptake – Colorado Springs Gazette

A state mandate requiring health care workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine significantly boosted the number of workers who got the shots, state data show.

The vaccination mandates were a political flashpoint in counties such as El Paso and Baca, where county commissioners voiced opposition to the mandates — in part, over staffing concerns. However, a high vaccination rate among health care workers could help protect them and their ability to care for others as the virus continues to surge statewide, industry representatives said. 

The deadline for health care workers to get vaccinated passed on Sunday, and state data shows a jump up in the percentage of health care workers who got the shot working in group homes and long-term care facilities in recent months. 

“It does seem like the mandate propelled some people to go forward,” said Doug Farmer, president and CEO of the Colorado Health Care Association, a group that represents long-term care and nursing home associations. 

The data show that the percentage of workers in skilled nursing and assisted living facilities who were vaccinated jumped from about 75% at the end of August to around 85% in mid-October. By last week, 91% of assisted living facility staff were vaccinated and 89% of skilled nursing facility staff. An additional 5% of skilled nursing facility staff were partially vaccinated and the rest had qualified for medical or religious exemptions. 

The data show that 92% of hospital staff were vaccinated as of last week. Only 1% of the staff was partially vaccinated, 1% was medically exempt, 3% qualified for a religious exemption and 2% were still unvaccinated. The data does not include 854 facilities that did not report their data, according to the state. 

The state’s mandate required roughly 3,800 licensed, certified health care facilities, including hospitals, to ensure their workforces are 100% vaccinated.

Facilities had to apply for waivers if they had employees that claimed religious or medical exemptions from the mandate, Farmer said. Some facilities, but not all, needed waivers, he said. 

Most hospitals likely needed waivers from the 100% vaccinated to allow them to bring on unvaccinated staff and give them time to get vaccinated and grant religious exemptions, said Cara Welch, a spokeswoman with the Colorado Hospital Association.

Centura Health, the system that owns Penrose-St. Francis, in Colorado Springs said 99.7% of its caregivers are vaccinated or received a medical or religious exemption as of the deadline.

The system placed 68 people on unpaid administrative leave Monday and it is working to keep them on staff and abide by the mandate, said Becky Brockman, spokeswoman for Penrose-St. Francis Health Services. Centura employs 21,000 workers across 17 hospitals. 

Denver Health has vaccinated 93.5% of its workforce and granted 2.6% of them religious or medical exemptions. The system did not have numbers to share Monday on how many people may be fired, spokeswoman Rachel Hirsch said. Workers are allowed to take paid or unpaid leave until they are fully vaccinated and then return to work, she said. 

SCL Health said 99% of its 10,000 workers have complied with the mandate. The system granted exemptions to 5.3% of its workforce. About 100 employees did not comply and will be suspended for three days and considered voluntarily resigned if they refuse to comply with the vaccination policy after that period, according to a news release. Anyone who leaves SCL Health’s employment may re-apply for their position should they change their mind, it said. 

Some who opposed the vaccine mandates worried that they could hurt an industry already facing a critical staffing shortage. For example, staffing agencies are able to charge nursing homes and assisted living facilities three to four times the regular rate for a nurse to work on a short-term basis because of the serious shortage, Farmer said. 

But the state mandate did create a “level playing field” so that employees could not leave one type of health care venue, such as hospitals, for another, or move from one county with a vaccination mandate to one without, Welch said. 

The state is trying to backfill the need for staff through a fusion center that can provide people for more basic tasks, freeing up people to do more clinical work, she said. 

The center has requests for 169 staff members from 19 facilities, the state health department said. The Colorado Hospital Association and hospital vendor contracts assisted eight other facilities. All the health care facilities in need of help have an active COVID-19 outbreak, the department said. 

Thirteen members of the Colorado National Guard have been deployed to 12 long-term care facilities and residential group homes to assist with tasks like administering medication, according to the state. 

To help protect hospital capacity, the governor halted all cosmetic surgeries beginning Monday. The order covers truly optional procedures like plastic surgeries and could free up some people to help in more critical areas, Welch said. 

El Paso County is ahead of the state in this area because local hospital systems started delaying elective procedures, such as joint surgeries, in September to protect capacity. 

The state is also readying a system of non-optional transfers for hospital patients to move to facilities with space for them, Welch said. Currently patients can decline a transfer and a health system must find a different place for them to go, she said. 

“We really are readying ourselves for another difficult couple of weeks or months ahead,” she said. 

The vaccination mandates could help keep hospital workers healthy not just at work, but as they spend time out and about in communities with high rates of community spread — such as El Paso County, where about 2,800 people tested positive in the last week. 

The rate of new COVID cases per 100,000 residents has plateaued at a high level for months, El Paso County data shows. 

Denver Gazette reporter Seth Klamann contributed to this report. 

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