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Survey: Washington hospitals could lose up to 5% of workforce due to vaccine mandate

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 11, 2021

Paramedics administer a shot to a pickup driver at the Spokane Fire Training Center Field House earlier this year. Firefighters and other medical providers are required to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 18, 2021.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Paramedics administer a shot to a pickup driver at the Spokane Fire Training Center Field House earlier this year. Firefighters and other medical providers are required to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 18, 2021. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Arielle Dreher and Laurel Demkovich The Spokesman-Review

As the deadline approaches for the governor’s vaccine mandate to take effect, data show more health care and state agency workers have decided to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

A survey from the Washington State Hospital Association, which includes data from the vast majority of the state’s hospitals, shows that 88% of hospital staff statewide are fully vaccinated.

With one week until the Oct. 18 deadline arrives, more than 89% of state employees have now been fully vaccinated. That’s up more than 20 percentage points in the last two weeks.

Each hospital and state agency’s vaccination rate varies, however, and the result of the vaccine mandate could impact access to services or capping the number of patients in some parts of the state.

The Washington State Hospital Association estimates that 2% to 5% of health care workers in Washington hospitals, or from 3,000 to 7,500 people, will leave as a result of the mandate.

There are some hospital employees who do not yet have an exemption. And some are only partially vaccinated or simply haven’t provided documentation of their vaccinations.

Cassie Sauer, CEO of the hospital association, said the percentage of health care workers likely leaving due to the mandate is lower than they expected. However, the loss of workers still will be felt in the health care system which is already experiencing staffing shortages.

“Staffing is tight and places with low vaccination rates will have to curtail services,” Sauer said.

All local Providence and MultiCare hospitals have not released hospital-level vaccination rates to date, but in recent weeks, the number of employees getting vaccinated has increased.

The hospital association’s survey does not include other parts of the health care system subject to the mandate, like long-term care facilities and emergency medical services departments.

“We are very concerned about the impact to the services that also exist and are important in health care,” Sauer said.

The Department of Social and Health Services is not tracking vaccination rates in the more than 4,000 facilities it oversees statewide, but facilities are responsible for implementing the governor’s mandate and could face enforcement action if inspectors find they have not ensured their employees are fully vaccinated or have complied with the governor’s mandate. There is concern that the mandate could impact the staffing shortage that long-term care settings already are experiencing statewide.

Sauer said the federal vaccine mandate should help keep health care workers from trying to leave the state to find work elsewhere.

There is no single department or sector across Washington hospitals where vaccination rates are consistently lower, hospital leaders said Monday. The mandate will affect hospitals differently, however. Sauer warned the 2-5% estimate is not indicative of the number of staff likely leaving each hospital.

“The place that seems to have the likeliest, biggest impact is rural Eastern Washington,” Sauer said.

This is true at Newport Hospital and Health, where officials predict they will lose 10% of their 25-bed hospital staff due to the vaccine mandate. The hospital has treated record numbers of younger, sicker COVID patients in the last month, and staffing is already in short supply.

Even with a more than 80% vaccination rate among staff, the employees leaving the hospital and its clinic will impact services offered there.

Christina Wager, Newport’s chief operating officer, said the hospital’s biggest concern is the physical therapy department which could lose 50% of its staff.

“We will have to reduce services,” Wagar said, noting that could mean some residents might have to drive to Spokane for services at times instead of being able to get them in their community.

Sauer said the final numbers and impact of the mandate likely will not be available until November. Some hospitals are offering a grace period to employees who have started the vaccination process or start that process this month, putting them on leave until they are fully vaccinated instead of firing them.

Similarly, state workers who have one dose by Oct. 18 can take up to a month of leave to receive a second dose and can still keep their job. The provision was agreed upon as part of a bargaining deal struck by the Washington Federation of State Employees – the largest union representing state workers. The agreement only covers workers represented by the union, but its provisions have since been extended to nonrepresented workers as well.

The 89% of state employees who are now fully vaccinated does not account for the number of vaccine accommodations approved.

According to the data released Monday by the Office of Financial Management, 1,567 state employees had either a religious or medical accommodation approved. An accommodation could be working remotely or switching shifts where employees interact with the public or coworkers.

About 1,300 religious and medical accommodations still are pending, as of last Monday. Another 1,500 have been denied.

Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement he is “extremely encouraged with the progress” in vaccinating public servants.

“I am so thankful for a state workforce that has chosen the right and best path for themselves, their families and communities and the residents they serve,” he said.

The state is in its contingency planning for staffing after Oct. 18, but Inslee said the “sky-high vaccination rates” should settle any concerns with staffing shortages.

Still, more than 8% of workers, or about 4,900 employees, have not had their vaccination status verified and have not received an accommodation. They could lose their job in one week, if they do not verify their vaccination record or get their first dose.

Arielle Dreher and Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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