By the time Oct. 18 arrives, most area medical facilities expect to have already seen some employees walk out the door over a state mandate that all must be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Aug. 9 that all Washington health care workers must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18, along with state employees and long-term care workers.

On Aug. 18 Inslee expanded the category to include K-12 and higher education employees in public, charter and private schools.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots spread over several weeks to be fully vaccinated. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single shot. Information on the vaccines can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at cdc.gov.

According to data from Walla Walla County’s Department of Community Health, the vaccination mandate covers at least 8,188 people employed within the county, including:

  • Providence St. Mary Medical Center — 1,173
  • Washington State Penitentiary — 1,080
  • Walla Walla Public Schools — 833
  • Whitman College — 609
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — 558
  • Walla Walla Community College — 597
  • College Place Public Schools — 200
  • Other health care workers — 3,138

Walla Walla County Public Health Officer Dr. Daniel Kaminsky said that while there is no way to know exact vaccination rates among these groups, some have a good number of people vaccinated and some do not.

As an example, Whitman College has a vaccination rate of more than 90%, Kaminsky said.

Hospitals, schools and medical clinics hover in the 70-80% range nationally, he added, noting that with Walla Walla County’s overall vaccination rate — as of Aug. 30, 47.5% of residents were fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health — local averages could be closer to 60-70%.

“Based on all of this, a good guess is that 45-55% (of mandated employees) will need a jab. We’re preparing for 4,000 shots,” Kaminsky said Aug. 21.

It is the health care industry that will arguably be hit most severely six weeks from now, experts say. Struggling mightily as the COVID-19 pandemic pounds communities in wave after wave of new cases, media stories are everywhere about people leaving the medical profession out of exhaustion, frustration and fear.

The state’s vaccine mandate is one more burden on top of his 230 or so beleaguered employees, said Shane McGuire, CEO of Columbia County Health Systems, which includes Dayton General Hospital.

“There is a limit and we are pushing up against that,” McGuire said of his staff. “Someone says ‘You will do this. I am making this decision for you.’”

That would give anyone pause and there is a moment of grief for most people when the process for making such a big decision gets truncated, he said.

“Not everyone has had the time to get past that anger,” McGuire said. “I’m hoping people can do that, digest this and then make a choice.”

The CEO wants his team to choose to stay with the care organization, certainly, but he knows not all can or will. Some people will give up their careers, others will move out of state, McGuire predicted.

Some employees have already resigned, some have indicated they will work up to the deadline before leaving.

Should someone be finally ready to get vaccinated after the deadline, then wish to return to work at Columbia County Health Systems, McGuire would gladly bring that person back on board, he said.

“Don’t think that we would turn them away, or that we won’t be incredibly grateful,” said McGuire.

If Columbia County Health System’s hospital, nursing home and clinics become short staffed, plans call for pulling administrative nurses back into active floor duty.

“We will probably shut down some nonessential services and bring those nurses to ER and where there’s acute patients. Even if it means putting off proactive care.”

The employees questioning the COVID-19 vaccines are not “anti-vaxxers,” McGuire emphasized.

“It’s about wanting to see where this goes. They know how drug trials go, that sometimes adverse reactions are way down the road. It’s a very personal decision and everyone is weighing this data. And that’s just one part of the decision. There are so many variables in how people are dealing with this.”

Vaccinated or not, employees on each side of the line have “given and given and given, taking care of people and getting through one crisis after the next,” McGuire said.

He hates the thought of losing even one person in the family of Columbia County Health System.

“I want to keep the band together,” he said, laughing.

Poll shows national concerns

In a recent American Nurses Association survey surrounding COVID-19 vaccines, 88% of 4,912 respondents said they are vaccinated or planning to become so and 4% were unsure. Of the 7% who indicated they will not get vaccinated, 84% cited “not enough information about long-term effects” of the vaccine formulas and 77% said there was not enough information about safety.

Nearly 60% of the nurses surveyed said they approve of mandatory vaccinations for all health care employees, 29% were against it and 12% feel COVID-19 vaccinations should only be required for public-facing employees.

Just a quarter of survey takers are comfortable recommending the vaccinations to patients and about a third are comfortable educating patients about the vaccines, according to the answers.

Walla Walla numbers

Gina Adrien, spokeswoman for Family Medical Center in Walla Walla, said the facility has “really high vaccination rates” among the staff of 80.

“Well above 90%,” Adrien said last week.

The number wasn’t that high at the end of February, but administrators took a one-on-one approach to listen to the individual fears and hesitation.

“It wasn’t just ‘Shut up and take the shot.’ We’ve been extending grace, finding people, talking to them,” she said.

Family Medical Center is allowing employees with religious or medical vaccination exemptions to test for COVID-19 twice a week to stay employed.

“We do anticipate a very, very small number of people who intend to move on. Fewer than a handful and we don’t know if it will be even less,” Adrien said.

“It’s always a disappointment when staff leave for any reason. Our tagline is ‘We are family,’ and we mean that very much.”

Kevin Michelson is hearing plenty from employees and patients of Walla Walla Clinic on all sides of the mandated vaccination issue.

It ranges from staff asking why they have to share their private health information to those who want a shutdown of everything until everyone is vaccinated, said Michelson, chief executive officer for the clinic.

In between those two rocks, care teams are worn out from battling the swelling surges of the virus, he added.

While the CEO expects the majority of Walla Walla Clinic’s employees to be vaccinated on time, others might choose to leave and go into nonclinical work.

“There are other options for those who truly have concerns,” Michelson said.

Contingency planning for vacant jobs includes the constant employee recruiting every rural medical clinic must do. The worry is that people leaving the clinic will increase the already considerable stress on vaccinated providers, especially if no new applicants come in.

Nationally there’s a trend in doctors and others retiring out of medicine at an accelerated rate, he said.

Restricted access to care has been a dire marker of the pandemic. With hospitals filled to the brink, losing local clinicians will add one more limit to health care, Michelson said.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how things play out.”

As the largest employer of medical personnel in the area, Providence St. Mary Medical Center is creating processes for a number of contingencies in the wake of the vaccine mandate.

Many of the caregivers have been vaccinated through the facility, spokeswoman Kathleen Obenland said, while others went elsewhere for shots.

Staff that meet criteria for vaccination exemptions can opt to test regularly and undergo mandatory vaccine-related education, according to a policy rolled out Aug. 5.

Otherwise, those who do not comply with Inslee’s mandate will not be employed at the hospital after Oct. 18.

Providence St. Mary Chief Nursing Officer Louise Dyjur said officials are hearing from people who plan to apply for the medical and religious exceptions to becoming vaccinated against COVID-19, but she does not yet know a final count.

“Our Caregiver Health department is reaching out to employees. We do know a majority of our caregivers are vaccinated but we don’t have an accurate number to provide.”

In Dayton, McGuire anticipates Inslee will eventually target other industries with vaccination requirements. It’s possible those who leave their medical careers behind now could encounter the same roadblock elsewhere, he said.

There will always be extra hardship tied to a forced decision in this divisive time, he added.

Still, there are many moments of gratitude for McGuire.

“The good news is I thought I was going to lose seven staff,” he said. “Five decided to vaccinate and we were just celebrating.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.

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