Rural Eastern Washington hospitals say no big losses in staffing post-vaccine mandate

Oct 23, 2021, 7:45 AM
A hospital worker gives a fist bump to a patient at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

It was originally predicted by health experts that rural hospitals in Eastern Washington may have a harder time with staff losses due to the COVID vaccine mandate. But so far, that doesn’t seem to be the case for some of the state’s smallest facilities.

In general, rural Eastern Washington counties have lagged behind counties west of the Cascades in vaccination rates. Critical access hospitals — rural facilities that have 25 beds or fewer — serve an essential function in these rural counties. The loss of staff members could make a big difference in the care that is given.

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

However, the rural Eastern Washington hospitals that have spoken with KIRO Radio this week reported that they are doing just fine.

In Pullman, which has had its share of COVID outbreaks in the past, staff at Pullman Regional Hospital are 100% in compliance. A statement from the hospital said that by April, 75% of staff had already been vaccinated, and it has only increased from there.

Jennifer Best, business development coordinator at Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster, told KIRO Radio that they only had to let go of six people out of 129.

“They were all per diem staff who hadn’t picked up shifts at the hospital in quite some time, so we didn’t lose any full-time employees,” Best said.

She noted that the minimal staffing loss has not affected the hospital’s ability to care for people at all — in fact, they are helping out other hospitals in the area by taking in their patients.

“We’re grateful that out of our 129 total employees, we had 86% vaccinated,” Best said.

Still, like everyone else, they have already been dealing with staff shortages due to burnout and exhaustion after 19 months of a pandemic.

“We already have a pretty strapped staff — more work than there is people to do it — so we’re glad that we’re not going to see any kind of a great impact as far as that goes,” Best said.

Astria Health, which runs Sunnyside Community Hospital and Toppenish Hospital, both near Yakima, also is grateful to have about 86% staff vaccination.

“Short of increased wait times and available bed space that has already been experienced during the various peaks of the pandemic, the vaccine mandate hasn’t added any additional impact to patient care,” said spokesman Mike Paoli, adding, “The care they got yesterday, two months ago, a year ago, isn’t going to be any different than the care they’re getting tomorrow.”

Paoli said they, too, have been grappling with the exhaustion-related staffing losses in the past several months, as well as some staff members leaving for the better pay and change of scenery that they can get by becoming traveling nurses.

Ironically, however, having other traveling nurses come into Washington has helped to fill those gaps.

“For Astria, at least, traveling nurses have been very effective in allowing their hospitals in Sunnyside and Toppenish to handle the surges in extra patient load without impacting patient care in any significant manner,” Paoli said.

He believes the vaccine mandate will actually have a positive impact on patient treatments because it may prevent or reduce instances of staff members getting sick or having to quarantine.

“The mandate, if anything, has provided more predictability or reliability — fewer employees will be home sick,” Paoli said.

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Rural Eastern Washington hospitals say no big losses in staffing post-vaccine mandate