Rural counties ask for amendment to healthcare worker vaccine mandate

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OTERO COUNTY, Colo. — The state’s mandate for healthcare workers to get vaccinated has Southern Colorado rural communities concerned. Licensed healthcare professionals have until Thursday, Sept. 30, to have their first dose and must be fully vaccinated by Sunday, Oct. 31, or they can be fired.

Otero County Commissioners said this mandate will push healthcare facilities into a catastrophic staff shortage. Eight different healthcare organizations requested the vaccine mandate to be amended along with the commissioners.

Most of the letters say that they won’t be able to keep their doors open if this mandate is required for the rural region. Now, these heroes are having to face the loss of employment due to a state executive order.

“We are proud of what we do and we feel like we’ve made a big difference in healthcare in this area,” Rocky Ford Family Health Center Business Manager Terry Miller said. “We’ve been here in Rocky Ford long enough that we’ve seen people who are parents that were babies when we got here.”

Rocky Ford Family Health Center is just one of two health clinics in that community. Otero County Commissioners said rural areas face a disproportionate healthcare workforce shortage.

“This will only make it worse,” County Commissioner Dist. 3 Jim Baldwin said.

Commissioners and Public Health Director Rick Ritter have grave concerns the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers would trigger a mass exodus.

“They are running short-staffed always so take away two or three even down here it’s not like the metro area where you’ve got people waiting in line to get a job,” Baldwin added.

“The last thing we want is those who are already medically vulnerable and have to be admitted to the hospital for another reason have an additional risk of contracting COVID while they are being hospitalized,” Governor Jared Polis said.

Arkansas Valley Regional Medical Center (AVRMC) has already lost five employees due to this mandate and anticipates losing 26 more nurses. In the past 20 months, AVRMC has cared for 197 emergency room patients with COVID-19 and 120 patients with COVID-19. Currently, the hospital has a vaccination rate among its employees of 67 percent.

Southeast Mental Health Services, a licensed community mental health center said 70 employees are unvaccinated (49% SEMHS staff) and about 60% are already looking for work elsewhere. If the mandate is enforced, they expect to have a workforce shortage of over 30% this would drop the 164 budgeted staff to a staff of approximately 110.

Arkansas Valley Hospice said the mandate could potentially shut the door to the only local hospice in the area. They currently have three nursing positions open. “No person should have to worry about if they will receive care for the end of life,” AVH said in a statement.

Cottonwood Ridge Assisted Living said they are shorthanded and when they requested help from the state, they never received it. If they are forced to close their doors, 29 at-risk elderly individuals will need to find placement. “Our hiring pool would be greatly diminished even further than what our more populated areas will have to endure. Some say that we should pay more, and we wish that we could, but Medicaid rates for assisted livings are lacking and the balance between our payroll and our revenues are not matching up,” Cottonwood Ridge stated in a statement.

“The state can absolutely help, the shortage we are exploring short, medium, and long-term ways,” Gov. Polis said.

While many fully support vaccinations, the mandate is causing concerns these providers won’t have the ability to offer the same high level of care people deserve.

“I still am of the mind that people need to and deserve to have the freedom of choice,” Miller added.

“You just don’t tell people that you have to do this, it’s not a good practice. We live in a free country and I hope that we stay free for my children and grandchildren’s sake,” Baldwin said.

So far, the Governor has not responded to the letters by Otero County Commissioners or the eight healthcare organizations.

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