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Nurses Are In Short Supply. Employers Worry Vaccine Mandate Could Make It Worse

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When Pam Goble first heard that President Biden was mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for health care workers, she had one thought: It’s about time.

Goble is owner and CEO of Ability Home Care, a pediatric home health care agency serving 900 children in San Antonio, Texas. She did not impose her own vaccine mandate even as the delta variant drove a spike in COVID-19 cases among her employees and the families they serve.

Health care workers had priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine back in December 2020, but nine months later, many are still reluctant to get the shots.

Vaccination rates remain low in some states and among some subgroups of health care workers such as nursing assistants.

Details about how the federal vaccine mandate will be enforced have yet to be released, but already protests have become regular events outside hospitals, and employers are warning they could see large numbers of workers quit just when they’re needed the most. It’s hard to predict how many people will actually quit their jobs over the vaccine mandate.

In June, after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by health care workers at Houston Methodist Hospital over its vaccine mandate, more than 150 workers quit or were fired.

Lewis County General Hospital in upstate New York said it would stop delivering babies this month after six people in the maternity department quit over New York’s vaccine mandate.

In Maine, where the governor announced a vaccine mandate for health care workers in mid-August, hospitals are so far reporting only a handful of resignations, but enforcement of the mandate is still more than a month away.

“I can’t afford to lose anyone,” says Ted LeNeave, CEO of Accura HealthCare, which operates 34 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota. With about 1,000 of his employees — 38% of his workforce — unvaccinated, LeNeave is calling on the federal government to provide a testing option for health care workers. He’s proposed that those who remain unvaccinated would undergo regular testing and wear full PPE, arguing that it’s a safer alternative to losing a lot of workers.

“I just don’t see how I can lay off a thousand people,” says LeNeave. LeNeave has offered his employees incentives to get vaccinated, including the chance to win $1,000 in a lottery, but he says many remain fearful.

Certified nursing assistants, who bathe, feed and groom nursing home residents, are among the lowest paid workers in the U.S.

There are plenty of other options for those who want out. In those jobs, workers would have an option to get tested rather than be vaccinated.

In Texas, Goble is baffled that this far into the pandemic, and with more than a thousand people dying from COVID-19 every day, the vaccines remain so politicized.

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