On Monday, Aug. 30, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment‘s Board of Health approved a temporary emergency rule mandating Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccinations for healthcare and nursing home workers across the state by the end of October as a condition of employment.

The vaccine mandate covers about 3,800 licensed facilities in Colorado. It was approved via a 6-1 vote in an emergency session. The board is set to reconvene next month to vote on permanent rules.

On Aug. 17, Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to the board requesting that it immediately consider mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for all individuals “involved in healthcare and support staff who regularly come into contact and share spaces with vulnerable populations including patients seeking medical care in essential medical settings and in congregate senior living facilities.”

Polis, a Democrat, cited a surge in cases of the highly infectious delta variant to justify a vaccine mandate. “The pandemic we face today is largely a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” wrote Polis without providing data. “The state can meet this challenge by getting more people vaccinated and protecting those most at risk.”

The vaccine mandate applies to staff and contract workers who work with patients or clients at licensed facilities regulated by the board, including assisted living homes, nursing homes, hospitals, hospices and community clinics. It does not apply to individual practitioners, doctor’s offices or urgent care centers. The facilities will no longer be allowed to hire unvaccinated workers after Oct. 31.

Individuals can apply for medical or religious exemptions from their employers. 

Nurse: On behalf of all healthcare workers, we deserve better

The Denver Post reported that about two in three who spoke during a two-hour public meeting attended virtually by at least 1,000 people were against the mandate.

“If my job can compel me to take a drug under duress or lose my job, what else can I be forced to do?” asked Lorissa ArgoRay, a registered nurse. “On behalf of all healthcare workers, we deserve better.”

Some said the vaccine mandate could lead to staff shortages if workers choose to quit rather than get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“There are concerns that if we have very rigid rulemaking and it is top-heavy, that 10 to 20 percent of medical staff will not want to comply,” said state Rep. Richard Holtorf, a Republican who represents nine counties in eastern Colorado.

“It’s very easy for people in my district to drive into Kansas or work at a facility in Oklahoma or New Mexico. So we have a very large concern about how this rule will be applied and what the impact will be for rural Colorado.”

Approximately 30 percent of the healthcare workforce in the affected facilities and agencies are unvaccinated, according to the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment

“With the rise in the delta variant, ensuring that all workers in licensed healthcare facilities are vaccinated is one of the most effective means the state can take to protect the public health, safety, and welfare of all Coloradans and end this ongoing pandemic,” the department said in a news release.

Montana, 10 other states ban vaccine mandates

Last year, healthcare and nursing home workers were considered heroes for risking their lives at the frontline of the battle against the pandemic. Now, thousands of them are facing unemployment as medical organizations and home care operators across the U.S. force employees into getting the COVID-19 vaccine under threat of suspension, termination or discriminatory testing practices.

The American Hospital Association (AHA) revealed last month that around 1,500 hospitals in the U.S. have required all workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. That number represents nearly 25 percent of hospitals in the country and will only go up as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on Aug. 23.

Fortunately, some states made sure they’re protected. One of those states is Montana, which blocked an attempt by Benefis Health System to put a vaccine mandate in place last April.

Montana’s Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a law that “prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status.” That includes prohibiting an employer to refuse employment to a person, barring a person from employment or discriminating against a person in compensation or in a term, condition or privilege of employment.

Also banning vaccine mandates were Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.

Healthcare unions speak up against vaccine mandates

Healthcare unions have spoken up against vaccine mandates.

“We have a right to bargain over a new work rule,” said Debbie White, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees – New Jersey’s largest healthcare union. Most union contracts will prevent employers from imposing mandates without negotiating.

After the New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City gave all of its employees until Sept. 1 to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or be terminated, the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East union announced that it would oppose vaccine mandates. 1199SEIU is composed of more than 450,000 members across six states and the District of Columbia.

“We are not in agreement with a mandate of the COVID-19 vaccine,” George Gresham, president of 1199SEIU, said in a statement. “We agree that vaccination is an important tool to help us move forward, but mandating vaccination is not, nor will it ever, be the answer.”

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