Hospitals projected to lose 2-5% of staff after vaccine mandate takes effect
The Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) expects between 2% and 5% of hospital staffers to leave after the COVID-19 vaccine mandate goes into effect next week.
WSHA CEO Cassie Sauer said this projection is based on a survey the association conducted last week after Oct. 4, the last day for people to get their shots to meet the Oct. 18 vaccine mandate deadline. The true number of staffers lost likely won’t be known until November.
“About 88% of hospital staffers said they were fully vaccinated. Others may still be in the process of getting vaccinated, may be seeking exemptions, or may have forgotten to report their vaccination yet,” Sauer said.
“2% to 5% is honestly better than many of us had thought might happen,” Sauer continued.
She noted that 2-5% is equal to roughly between 3,000 and 7,500 people, and not all of those leaving over the vaccine mandate will be nurses or other people who work directly with patients. Sauer observed that “it could be folks in accounting, or who are stocking the rooms, or keeping the rooms really clean, or working in food services.”
“But we also know that there will be services curtailed,” she warned.
Hospitals across the state have already seen serious treatments delayed over the summer and now into fall — such as appendectomies, tumor removal surgeries, and treatment for stroke patients — because of the COVID surge and the ongoing lack of staff.
“It’s likely to get worse. … I don’t know that we know for sure, but I think that we will see some more delays,” Sauer said.
Hospitals losing the greatest portions of staff are expected to have the biggest cuts in service and treatment. Sauer noted that some of the effects of the lost staff could include “closing down or really limiting outpatient services” and “longer wait times for services.”
“We could see some caps in inpatient admissions,” she described. “One hospital discussed whether they might need to close their dialysis unit, some psychiatric units.”
While a 2-5% loss is the statewide prediction, some individual hospitals are looking to be better than that — and others worse.
“The place that seems to have the likeliest biggest impact is rural Eastern Washington, from what we’ve seen so far,” Sauer said.
Newport Hospital, which sits in Northeast Washington on the border with Idaho, confirmed that. The hospital is in Pend Oreille County, in which just 37% of those 12 and older are fully vaccinated.
“Just because of where we are, we’re definitely going to see a higher percentage than 2-5%,” said Newport Chief Operations Officer Christina Wagar. “We’re looking at probably losing about 10% of our staff, which is extremely significant.”
Of that 10%, she said half of the hospital’s physical therapy department is likely to go, which may force people to drive to Spokane for physical therapy.
In contrast, Evergreen Health in Kirkland said 97% of its staff members are fully vaccinated.
“A continued decline in the COVID peak would help to bring back some of the care being delayed,” Sauer said.
“If COVID cases keep falling, that eases some pressure on hospitals as well, so it’s kind of a balance,” she added.
However, while COVID cases were falling steadily since the start of September, they appear to have plateaued — so there is no telling yet whether that promising downward trend will continue, freeing up staffers.
“We were seeing about a 10% decline every week in the past few weeks, and this very past week, we only saw a 2% decline,” Sauer said.
And even on the weeks where the charts show 10% drops, looks can be deceiving, she warned.
“One of the reasons that hospitalizations are going down is that people are dying. You’ve got 15 to 20 people dying every day in the hospital, that does contribute to hospitalizations going down,” Sauer said. “We do not want that to be the way that hospitalizations are going down. We want it to go down because people are not getting sick.”