Recently announced federal vaccine mandates, if they are made official, could have unintended impacts on local care, health care leaders say.
County health officer Dr. Mark Schueler has said that vaccines are the most effective tool curbing the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but policies mandating them in health care could lead to staff shortages if individuals opposed to getting the vaccine leave their jobs.
“It puts an additional strain on a limited workforce, especially in nursing homes, and it’s exactly what we don’t need right now,” he said. “We have a freeze on admissions to our care center because we don’t have enough people to cover all the shifts.”
As of press time Tuesday, more than 35% of Johnson County residents are fully vaccinated.
The Biden administration first announced a vaccine requirement for staff at Medicare- and Medicaid-funded nursing homes in the name of protecting vulnerable populations from the virus. Amie Holt Care Center Director Brenda Gorm echoed Schueler’s concerns at the end of August, when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services first announced that COVID-19 vaccines would be required for nursing home employees. At the time, Gorm told the Bulletin that she has encouraged her staff to get vaccinated from the outset but that she anticipates the mandate could cause the care center to lose “good-quality staff members” who are strongly opposed to receiving a vaccine.
Johnson County Healthcare Center CEO Luke Senden has similar concerns about the care center and the hospital and family medical clinic. The healthcare center and other employers who could be affected by the mandate said they have yet to receive official guidance from the White House about how to implement new requirements. Details will be worked out as part of the federal rulemaking process.
The plan released by the Biden administration earlier this month says all employees at workplaces with more than 100 workers will have to either be vaccinated or be tested for the virus weekly.
One of the county’s largest employers, with roughly 250 workers, Johnson County School District No. 1, is not yet making plans for the possible mandate because of a lack of guidance, Superintendent Charles Auzqui said.
Another group affected by impending requirements are federal workers, who will have to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22, according to the Safe Federal Workforce Task Force. There will be no testing option.
According to the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information, 127 Johnson County residents were employed by the federal government in 2020. Both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, two major federal employers with field offices in Buffalo, employ local contractors who work onsite and could be subject to vaccine requirements. Wyoming Hospital Association President Eric Boley said that although the federal government has not yet issued any guidance on health care worker vaccine mandates, he is already seeing professionals leave the industry.
“We are just trying to manage the fears and the expectations of staff,” Boley said. “The governor’s office is obviously going to push back on this, and it looks like the Legislature is going to do something. What that looks like, I don’t know, because the federal government controls everything; they control the money.”
Schueler said that if the mandate goes through, the county is likely in a good place to administer a large number of vaccines and administer weekly tests with four vaccination sites.
State officials have made clear that they are opposed to the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates, and Gov. Mark Gordon has proposed two solutions.
In a press release, Gordon said the state attorney general is prepared to take legal action, and the Legislature is in discussions about a possible special session aimed at addressing the federal government’s “overreach.”
“We cannot sit on our hands just watching this egregious example of federal government overreach,” Gordon said in the release. “We are already communicating with other Governors and states to prepare legal options once emergency standards are issued.”
According to the release, Wyoming currently runs OSHA at the state level, which could be jeopardized if the state does not adhere to the federal standard. Therefore, state government needs to act carefully, Gordon said.
“Vaccines are an important tool that can help us to bring this pandemic under control,” he said in the release. “I am vaccinated myself and believe they are safe and effective. Nevertheless, I also understand others may have a different impression of the COVID-19 vaccine. In some cases, they are my neighbors and I respect their views, just as I expect them to respect mine. This Biden mandate is counterproductive and will not convince anyone otherwise.”
The governor’s office will finalize details on a potential special session after federal emergency standards are released, the release said.