By Kevin Killough, Powell Tribune
More than 50 people — most of them healthcare workers — protested Wednesday morning outside Cody Regional Health over a federal vaccine mandate that threatens the employment of unvaccinated healthcare workers across the country.
“It’s not about being vaccinated and unvaccinated. It’s about the loss of freedom and medical choice,” said Ken Lee, a Cody nurse.
Last week, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that employees of healthcare providers will be required to have their first COVID vaccination shot by Dec. 5, and be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022, in order for the providers to continue receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding.
CMS estimates this mandate will apply to approximately 76,000 providers and healthcare facilities and impact over 17 million healthcare employees across the U.S.
However, Gov. Mark Gordon announced Wednesday that Wyoming is joining with nine other states to challenge the CMS rule; Gordon’s administration previously challenged mandates relating to federal contractors and employees and to businesses with more than 100 employees.
“Wyoming continues to face a significant shortage of healthcare workers and this federal mandate will only exacerbate our healthcare staffing issues,” Gordon said in a statement.
“This administration needs to understand that overreaching policies that force employees to choose between vaccination and termination negatively impacts Wyoming communities, rural healthcare, and residents of skilled nursing facilities.”
Jab or Job
Powell Valley Healthcare and Cody Regional Health began notifying employees last week that they would need to be fully vaccinated by the deadline to continue their employment.
PVHC CEO Terry Odom said the hospital is initiating a process to review staff members who hold a medical or religious exemption to the mandate and will begin evaluating those employees who claim those exemptions.
“We anticipate being able to retain staff through this process,” Odom said in a statement.
She said that 42% of the hospital’s staff is vaccinated, adding that the organization continues to hold weekly vaccine clinics and provides educational resources to encourage staff to get vaccinated.
Jason Jackson, who said he’s a healthcare worker but declined to name his employer, was among the crowd protesting in Cody Wednesday. Jackson said he will be unemployed in December due to the mandate, unless a request for a religious exemption is approved. He’s concerned how the mandate will exacerbate staffing shortages in rural healthcare.
“We’ve already seen where patients are being turned away from facilities because there’s not enough staff to take care of them,” Jackson said.
Hospitals have also been strained by the number of people seriously ill with COVID-19 and have a hard time finding beds available in other states for patients needing more intense care, Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin, who works at PVHC, has said.
Odom said staffing shortages continue to stress PVHC’s resources, but they have not had to reduce or change services at any of the facilities on its campus, which includes The Heartland and the Powell Valley Care Center.
To supplement its regular staff, the hospital has added nine traveling staff at the care center and will add another four soon. These are employees from other providers that work temporarily at PVHC.
Odom said the Wellness Lab Clinic closed due to a national shortage of supplies.
“We will reopen as soon as supplies become available,” she said.
Cody Regional Health also released a statement on the situation, saying Medicare and Medicaid programs account for 70% of the hospital’s reimbursement.
Cody Regional Health
“CRH could not sustain our current services or operate without Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement,” said Doug McMillan, Cody Regional Health CEO. CRH is also establishing a process to evaluate employees who request an exemption and said the requests would be evaluated according to federal guidelines.
R.J. Kost, a state lawmaker who serves on the PVHC Board of Trustees, said nearly 70% of PVHC’s funding comes from the two federal programs managed by CMS.
Kost said he opposes the mandate and thinks there’s better means by which to encourage people to take care of their health, but he said the hospital’s “hands are tied.”
“I think the overreaching of the federal government is extreme,” Kost said, but “if we lose that funding, we lose our hospital.”
Last Year’s Heroes
The protesters in Cody Wednesday didn’t express animosity toward their employers. Most recognized they were just carrying out what the federal government is forcing them to do.
“We’re not against Doug [McMillan] or the board,” said Lee, the Cody nurse.
Some of the protesters were concerned about the safety of the vaccine, but most were objecting to what they believe is a violation of their rights.
Karinthia Herweyer, a registered nurse who has worked in healthcare for over 12 years, said she believes the mandate is unconstitutional. Herweyer said she was especially upset over how it’s treating those working in the healthcare industry after they were so instrumental in caring for the sick during the pandemic.
“Last year’s heroes may very well be this year’s unemployed,” Herweyer said in an email ahead of the protest.
Many of the other protesters expressed a moral objection to the way in which the mandate is forcing people to accept a medical procedure they don’t want.
“My biggest thing is medical ethics 101. A patient has the right to refuse treatment, even if it’s good for them. This mandate takes away that right. Everyone on this planet is a patient at some point,” said Linda Hordichok, who said she works in affiliated healthcare outside direct patient care.
Bonnie and Tim Newton, who own Alpine Medical, which has locations in Powell and Cody, said they are not currently impacted by the mandates. However, if the rules are allowed to stand, the Newtons fear they will eventually trickle down to smaller businesses such as their own. They said they were at the protest to stand up for their rights and support unvaccinated healthcare workers who could be losing their jobs.
“We need to take a stand for those people who will lose their jobs,” said Nicole Burr, office manager at Alpine Medical. “We’re here to support them.”
Mark Anderson, a minister in Cody, said he knows people personally, including family members, who have had bad reactions to the vaccine.
“I just believe the mandate is illegal,” Anderson said, adding that, despite the adverse effects he’s seen in others, he wasn’t opposed to people choosing to get the vaccine.
Public health officials — including those at Park County Public Health, the Wyoming Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — say the vaccines are the most effective way for people to reduce their odds of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.
Studies of the vaccines’ effectiveness have found that they reduce a person’s risk of becoming severely sick by 90% or more, the CDC says.
Federal and state health officials say the risk of serious adverse reactions from the vaccines are much lower than the risk of developing serious complications from the novel coronavirus and its variants.