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A health care worker received Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

At his hospital on Colorado’s Western Slope, Jeff Mengenhausen sees the strain afflicting hospitals across the state.

The ICU at Montrose Memorial Hospital is full — and likely will stay full for months, he said. Every time a bed opens up, a patient gets transferred in to fill it.

His workforce is taxed. The hospital has brought in about 15 traveling nurses and respiratory therapists to help cover shifts. But they’re expensive — as much as $200 an hour when, before the pandemic, temporary traveling help might have cost around $75 an hour.

Montrose Regional Health, which includes the hospital, employs about 850 people, including around 250 nurses, Mengenhausen said.

So, in one sense, the dozen or so workers who resigned over the statewide COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care workers didn’t make much of a dent. Mengenhausen said the workers were scattered across various departments, some nurses, but also maintenance team members and a pharmacy technician. The hospital — which at one point feared it could lose as many as 30 workers due to the mandate — did not have to suspend any services due to staffing shortages.

But, in another sense, Mengenhausen said the staffing losses related to the mandate added to an already challenging situation. The hospital has at times paused elective surgeries to manage bed space. It already had around 80 open positions, according to the Montrose Press, and now faces competition from hundreds of other worker-hungry health systems across the country to fill those spots.

“It definitely does not make it easy, especially on the nursing side,” Mengenhausen said. “The mandate definitely does not help with staffing.”

Some hospitals saw a silver lining to the mandate

This, in microcosm, is the story of Colorado’s vaccine mandate and its impact on hospital staffing. With some notable exceptions, the mandate didn’t cause enough workers to leave or lose their jobs to have a significant impact on hospital operations.

But the mandate deadlines hit at a desperately difficult time for hospitals, when workers were also leaving due to burnout, or harassment or better-paying opportunities, and when patients were pouring into hospitals at the highest levels of the pandemic.

Across the state, 5,290 health care workers left or lost their jobs due to the mandate, according to data provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That number covers workers in all licensed health care facilities — not just hospitals, but also nursing homes and home health care agencies. The department did not provide a breakdown by sector, nor did it split the numbers out by job category.

There are more than 280,000 health care workers in the state, according to CDPHE. That means the mandate reduced staffing across the industry by about 1.8%.

The exterior of the University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, photographed on Oct. 18, 2019. The hospital is the flagship of the UCHealth system. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

By all accounts, large health systems — with hospitals concentrated mostly along the Front Range — fared better. UCHealth, which imposed its own vaccination mandate, said it fired 119 workers, about 0.5% of its workforce, for not being vaccinated.

Centura Health, which employs roughly 21,000 people, said it had only 22 workers who didn’t comply with the state mandate.

Some of these larger systems even reported a silver lining to the mandate — fewer staff out sick.

“With broad vaccination rates, fewer employees are testing positive for COVID-19 and needing to be out of work while they recover,” Dan Weaver, a spokesman for UCHealth, wrote in an email in October when UCHealth announced its vaccination rates.

Overall, 92% of Colorado health care workers at licensed facilities are fully vaccinated against COVID, according to CDPHE. The rates are even higher at hospitals — nearly 94%. About 4% of hospital workers have either a medical or religious exemption.

Rural hospitals hit harder

But while large systems handled the mandate-related staffing losses with relative ease, rural hospitals were more likely to struggle.

Late last month, the CEO of Prowers Medical Center, in Lamar, announced that the hospital would be suspending labor and delivery services at the hospital. Mothers-to-be in far southeastern Colorado would need to find another place to give birth.

The hospital had been able to achieve only 90% compliance with the vaccine mandate, CEO Karen Bryant wrote in a news release explaining the decision.

“The pandemic has taken a toll on health care personnel, leading to burnout, fatigue, early retirement, and others leaving the field of health care entirely,” Bryant wrote. “The resulting shortage of health care workers combined with the new vaccine mandate, has only aggravated the situation.  Since we have not yet reached the 100% threshold, we have had to evaluate our ability to provide our current services in a safe manner.”

Bryant did not respond to a request for comment. In the news release, she made clear that concerns about the mandate’s staffing impacts are separate from consideration of the health benefits of vaccination.

“The vaccine is the most effective way of mitigating COVID-19’s impact on our patients and team members,” she wrote.

Parkview Health System, in Pueblo, lost 56 workers due to the vaccine mandate, spokeswoman Racheal Morris said.

Parkview Hospital is seen on Oct. 25, 2021, in Pueblo. Parkview is one of the largest employers in Pueblo County, with nearly 3,000 employees. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Parkview has been one of the hardest-hit hospitals during the current wave of coronavirus infections, and a surge team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is currently working at the hospital and helping to expand capacity. The system has about 3,000 workers at Parkview Medical Center and affiliated clinics, so Morris said the overall impact of the mandate was not as bad as feared.

“For us to say goodbye to 56, while of course we didn’t want to say goodbye to any of them, we know that number could have been higher,” she said.

Mengenhausen, the Montrose hospital CEO, said the mandate had another, less measurable impact on the staff at his hospital. It sowed tension, creating division at a time when nerves were already frayed. And that is something it will take the hospital a while to recover from.

“It’s so polarizing,” he said. “It’s taking your focus away from dealing with the pandemic, taking care of those caregivers who are taking care of those patients. It’s just adding another distraction on top of that.”

John Ingold

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs...