More staff in hospitals reporting vaccination, but some losses still likely

Oct 18, 2021, 6:00 PM
Kirkland's Evergreen Health facility. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

As of Monday, all health workers throughout the state must show they are fully vaccinated or lose their jobs. And while the impact on hospitals does not appear to be as bad as originally feared, the loss in staff will likely affect services in some areas.

The Washington State Hospital Association last week tallied the number of vaccinated hospital workers in our state at 88%. While there have been no new statewide surveys done since then, WSHA says the number of people reporting themselves as vaccinated is still growing.

“There was a number of people who were fully vaccinated [counted in the unvaccinated 12%], and they were fully vaccinated months and months ago … and just hadn’t gotten around to turning in their cards,” said WSHA CEO Cassie Sauer.

Hospitals projected to lose 2% to 5% of staff after vaccine mandate takes effect

Right now, Sauer still estimates that between 2% and 5% of hospital workers could leave their jobs statewide — though she says this figure could be a little high considering the recent vaccination reports.

Even so, those losses are likely to have an impact.

“We will see a curtailing of services,” Sauer said. “There’s no question about that.”

And the hospitals most likely to see a reduction in services are the facilities in rural Eastern Washington.

“There are going to be caps on admissions in some rural hospitals, there are going to be closing down of some service lines, potentially, or having people have to wait longer for elective or non-urgent procedures,” she said.

But even if only certain hospitals experience a big staffing drop, medical systems around the state are likely to feel the effects. When one hospital no longer has room for new patients, those patients are transferred elsewhere in the state via the Washington Medical Coordination Center.

“Our state is so interconnected with respect to our health care system that any loss impacts all of us,” said Reza Kaleel, chief executive of Kadlec Health System in the Tri-Cities. “If we have a reduction in services in one area or a reduction in beds in an area, it impacts all of us.”

To that end, some federal staffers are coming in to help fill in the gaps.

“The state has secured funding for COVID-only hospital care that is provided through the agency staff through FEMA,” explained WSHA Executive Vice President Taya Briley.

Unfortunately, there may be difficulties due to the fact that COVID-only hospital workers can only treat COVID patients.

“Hospitals are trying to think about how can they manage having a staff person who comes — who’s working in the ICU — and can’t touch someone who’s there because they had a heart attack,” Sauer said.

She said this could make things challenging for rural hospitals that may have fewer COVID patients, but many patients with other ailments.

Some Eastern Washington hospitals say they don’t expect tremendous staff losses over the vaccine mandate because those staffers have already left.

“Prior to this, folks who knew that there was a vaccine requirement coming maybe chose to either leave health care or go somewhere where they thought maybe the mandates would be a little different,” Kaleel said.

Other workers, he said, left because they were suffering burnout after more than a year of COVID — while others took more lucrative federal contracts traveling around the country to treat patients.

“We lost nearly a quarter of our ICU staff through this year, and we’ve replaced some of those positions, and we have some travelers we’ve been able to fill in,” Kaleel said.

At the moment, he said more than 90% of the hospital’s workers have shown so far that they are fully vaccinated, and he does not anticipate any more major shortages.

Dr. Andrea Carter, chief medical officer of Samaritan Hospital in Moses Lake, said they have had the same experience — and she does not count on any big staffing changes in the next week.

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More staff in hospitals reporting vaccination, but some losses still likely