With one week until Gov. Jay Inslee’s Oct. 18 deadline for hospital workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, a statewide survey indicates as many as 7,500 could be out of work over the issue.
The Washington State Hospital Association surveyed members about staff vaccination rates last week, after the Oct. 4 cutoff to be vaccinated in time for the deadline two weeks later.
With 94% of Washington’s hospitals reporting, the survey showed 88% of hospital workers statewide will be vaccinated by the deadline, Cassie Sauer, WSHA CEO, said Monday in a Zoom conference call.
The vaccination rates for staff at Yakima Valley’s hospitals are close to the statewide number, officials with Yakima Valley Memorial and Astria Health told the Yakima Herald-Republic on Monday afternoon.
“We are pleased to report that 86% of Yakima Valley Memorial’s employees are compliant with Gov. Inslee’s emergency proclamation mandating COVID-19 vaccination for health care workers,” said Dr. Marty Brueggemann, chief medical officer.
“We continue to collect documentation and process exemption requests. We are optimistic about the trends we are seeing and proud of our employees for complying with this mandate that will improve health and safety for our patients and staff,” Brueggemann said.
Astria staff has a vaccination rate of 88 percent, said spokesman Mike Paoli. He said that number includes staff at the Sunnyside and Toppenish hospitals.
“Astria is making accommodations for staff who are getting exemptions, or are applying for exemptions,” Paoli added. “Personnel is being shifted so the community won’t see any impact on services.”
Sauer said the 12 percent of state hospital workers not yet vaccinated “are a mix of staff who are partially vaccinated, have an approved exemption and accommodation, have applied or plan to apply for an exemption that has not yet been reviewed, have not yet provided verification, or are choosing not to be vaccinated.”
The latter group is about 2% to 5% of statewide hospital staff — about 3,000 to 7,500 — who could leave their jobs rather than meet the state vaccination requirement, Sauer said.
“We know there will be some impacts on services,” Sauer added. “Staffing remains constrained across the health care system and the loss of staff will have an impact on patients, including continued delays for less urgent procedures and longer waits for outpatient appointments.”
Officials from hospitals across Washington joined Sauer in Monday morning’s Zoom meeting, and their facilities reflected the wide range of vaccination rates across the state.
Dr. Tim Dellit, chief medical officer at University of Washington Medicine, noted that King County has an overall vaccination rate of more than 80 percent among residents ages 12 and older, and the rate among his staff is 98 percent.
Hospital officials and doctors at Harbor Regional Health hospital in Aberdeen and Newport Hospital and Health Services, in the state’s southwest and northeast regions, told a different story.
Dr. Julie Buck, an emergency department physician at the Aberdeen hospital, said quite a few nurses have resigned over the past few months due to the physical, mental and emotional demands of treating increasing numbers of COVID-positive patients.
The lack of staff, particularly in the respiratory therapy department, has led to more patients being transported to neighboring hospitals, putting a strain on them and the EMS staff which transports the patients.
“Our county is struggling with vaccination hesitancy; we just cleared the 50% vaccination rate,” Buck said.
The numbers are similar in northeast Washington’s Pend Oreille County, said Christina Wager, COO of the Newport hospital.
Vaccination rates are 42% countywide there, and while roughly 80% of the Newport hospital’s staff are vaccinated, specific departments fall short of that.
“We’ll lose about 10% of our staff due to the vaccine mandate,” Wager said. “Our largest concern is our physical therapy department; we’re looking at losing 50% of our physical therapy employees.”
Sauer said her organization did not have vaccination data for individual hospitals, adding the full tally of workers who refused to be vaccinated would not be known until early November. Some workers will be put on administrative leave as they complete their vaccinations or await word on an exemption.
She also stressed the need to remain focused on the bigger picture: a COVID death rate that remains much too high and a recently slowing decline in the number of hospitalizations.
“Although we’re down from 1,700 hospitalizations a week to 1,100, last week, it was only a 2% decline — still a decline, but not as sharp as it was,” Sauer said. “And the death rate remains high. We have 15 to 20 deaths a day in Washington state from COVID.
“That would be like a medium-sized jet was crashing at SeaTac or the Spokane airport every week. And those are just the deaths occurring in hospitals; many other are dying at home.”
The death toll has been noticeable even in smaller counties, Newport Hospital’s Wager said.
“In September, Pend Oreille County saw more COVID deaths in the month of September than all previous months combined,” Wager added. “That’s very hard on the staff emotionally.”