Nearly 1,500 hospitals – about a quarter of all hospitals in the United States – now require their staff to be vaccinated against covid, said Colin Milligan, spokesperson for the American Hospital Association. Others are following suit every day as hospital leaders aim to avoid staff shortages like those experienced last year and prevent employees from becoming vectors of the disease.
But that’s not an option in Montana, where a law passed this year amid a pandemic response prohibits employers, including most healthcare facilities, from requiring a vaccine for their staff. Nor is it in Oregon, where a 32-year-old law similarly prohibits vaccination warrants for health workers.
At least seven states have enacted laws to prevent covid vaccination warrants or so-called vaccine passports that would provide proof of vaccination, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. Most only limit state and local governments or specifically exempt healthcare facilities, but Montana law goes further. It prohibits employers – including hospitals -om discriminating against a worker based on their immunization status. Employers cannot require vaccinations and workers do not have to tell their bosses if they are vaccinated.
“I can’t imagine passing a law worse than this,” said John Goodnow, CEO of Benefis Health in Great Falls. “Imagine if this had been transmitted when we were fighting polio or smallpox before that. “
Benefis had announced plans to make the vaccine mandatory for its 3,400 employees in April, before state lawmakers passed the bill preventing the hospital from doing so.
Those who support the law said it was a matter of personal rights.
“Your healthcare decisions are private, they’re protected by the Montana state constitution,” Rep. Jennifer Carlson, Republican, said in March as she introduced the bill. “And your religious rights are protected. “
Healthcare professionals are more likely to be vaccinated against covid than the general population. Nevertheless, there are still nurses, doctors and other hospital workers who work directly with hesitant or inoculation-resistant patients, especially in rural areas.
Dr Greg Tierney, Chief Medical Officer of Benefis, said he was concerned about potential resentment between vaccinated and unvaccinated staff as their workload increased with the number of cases.
“You have the people who have been vaccinated watching the person next to him who chooses not to,” Tierney said. “Whereas they were literally brothers in arms. “
No vaccine mandate increases staff shortages
In northwest Montana, an area with a 34% vaccination rate to date and the epicenter of the state’s latest wave, Logan Health officials said existing staff shortages were worsening. as health workers became infected or were required to self-quarantine. Chief medical officer Dr Doug Nelson said the injections have been proven to be safe and effective, and Logan would likely consider a staff vaccination warrant if state law permitted.
“Wearing a mask whenever you’re in our facility helps, but being able to immunize everyone would help more,” said Nelson.
In Billings, Montana’s most populous city, the Billings Clinic’s intensive care unit reached capacity in the first week of August and authorities began moving patients to overflowing beds. At that time, about 60% of system workers reported being vaccinated.
Hospital leaders are holding weekly town halls to answer clinic workers’ questions about vaccines or try to dispel myths between caring for growing numbers of covid patients.
“Knowing that there are solutions that can help prevent this from happening, such as a simple vaccination, makes you frustrated,” said Dr. Fernando Caceres, Intensivist at the Billings Clinic ICU.
In July, nearly 60 major U.S. medical organizations called on employers to force all healthcare and long-term care workers to get vaccinated in a joint statement including the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association. The Department of Veterans Affairs gave health workers eight weeks to get vaccinated.
In some states, no vaccine means no work
Some hospitals have had to enforce their mandates. In Texas in June, the Houston Methodist fired or accepted the resignation of more than 150 health workers who did not receive the jab.
Trinity Health – a Catholic health care system with 117,000 workers in 22 states – said employees without gunfire or exemptions would be made redundant.
“Trinity Health counted our own colleagues and patients in the too high number of coronavirus deaths,” said Mike Slubowski, the organization’s president and CEO, in the announcement. “Now that we have a proven way to prevent deaths from covid-19, we don’t hesitate to do our part. “
How Trinity’s policy will work in Oregon, where three-decade-old law prevents vaccine requirements, is unclear
Attempts to change the law will not take place until next year’s legislative session, Democratic Governor Kate Brown said. In the meantime, she issued a rule last week to pressure healthcare workers to get vaccinated, saying they would undergo weekly covid tests if they didn’t – and that their employers would foot the bill.
“This new safety measure is necessary to prevent Delta from causing serious illness among our first line of defense: our doctors, nurses, medical students and frontline health workers,” Brown said in the statement. Before Brown’s announcement, Kaiser Permanente, a California-based national health care system, said all of its employees needed to be vaccinated against covid – even those in Oregon. (KHN, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
After Brown’s announcement, KP spokesman Michael Foley said those who do not get the vaccine in Oregon will have weekly tests; However, employees in other states will have to apply for medical or religious exemptions or find new employment if they refuse to be vaccinated.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three main operational programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.