Continuing vaccine mandate could hurt health care staffing

CASPER — A vaccine mandate for health care facilities that receive federal funding will remain in place, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday, a decision that observers say has the potential to worsen existing staffing shortages at facilities across the state.

The Biden administration’s mandate applies to health care facilities that receive money from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The mandate allows for medical and religious exemptions, and it’s unclear whether health workers who refuse to be vaccinated will lose their jobs.

Nonetheless, Thursday’s 5-4 ruling is expected to be felt across the state.

All of the state’s 38 nursing homes and 28 hospitals take federal money, according to Eric Boley, president of the Wyoming Hospital Association. The state’s own facilities — Wyoming State Hospital, Wyoming Life Resource Center and the Wyoming Retirement Center — will also be affected.

Wyoming has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the nation, trailed only by Idaho.

“We’re already short-staffed, and we can’t afford to lose more employees at this point,” Boley said. “Pick any place in the state and there will be shortages.”

While Boley acknowledged that vaccines are the best defense against the virus, he believes the mandates should not be carried out by the federal government. Instead, they should be handled on a more “local or regional basis.”

The Supreme Court decision comes at a time when COVID-19 hospitalizations are down in the state, but that doesn’t mean the state’s hospitals aren’t still at risk of being overwhelmed.

“We have enough beds, but we don’t have enough staff to staff them,” Boley said.

As Wyoming begins the third year of the pandemic, part of the staffing shortages are due to burnout, Boley said. The virus had increased demand for services, and its politicization means workers sometimes bear the brunt of bad feelings.

“They’ve been looked at as heroes, and now they’re being viewed as villains,” Boley said.

In a statement, Gov. Mark Gordon briefly acknowledged the potential harms if health workers leave their jobs rather than be vaccinated.

“It is disappointing that the Court did not reach a similar conclusion on the CMS vaccine mandate,” Gordon said. “I continue to maintain that healthcare workers should not be forced to choose between vaccination and termination. We are still in the process of evaluating the impacts of this ruling on Wyoming’s healthcare workforce.”

How health care providers proceed in Wyoming remains to be seen. A handful of hospitals already have their own vaccine requirements for staff. That includes the four operated by Banner Health, which oversees the state’s largest, Wyoming Medical Center.

Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, on the other hand, has a looser policy. Currently, Cheyenne Regional requires that staff be vaccinated, but allows those who are unvaccinated against the virus to be tested regularly. That policy will not be admissible under the federal mandate.

“With what these folks have faced, it’s a tough situation to say, ‘You can’t stay in this industry’ when they’ve dedicated their whole lives to it,” Boley said.

At the same time that the court allowed the mandate for health care facilities to move forward, the justices blocked the vaccine mandate for some companies.

Worker mandate rejected

The mandate would have applied to companies that employ over 100 workers, amounting to more than 80 million people nationwide. If workers declined to be vaccinated, they would have been required to submit to masking and weekly testing.

“OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID–19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here,” the conservative justices wrote in an unsigned opinion.

Wyoming’s top politicians celebrated the news.

“This is a huge win,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis said in a tweet. “The federal government has no place making far-reaching mandates that put an undue burden on businesses across Wyoming.”

Gordon has been outspokenly against both mandates and vowed that the Attorney General would fight them in court.

“We are delighted that the Supreme Court ruled favorably on our petition regarding OSHA’s authority. This is a victory for Wyoming businesses and their workers,” Gordon said in a statement Thursday. “The court rightfully recognized this action by the Biden Administration for what it was — a blatant example of federal overreach.”

In the fall, the Wyoming Legislature even went as far as to convene a special session in an attempt to fight back against the vaccine mandate for workers. In the end, they did not pass any laws, but they did allocate $4 million for the state to fight the mandates in court.

“Stopping this massive government overreach is a victory for all Americans who value the Constitution and their personal freedoms,” Sen. John Barrasso, a longtime physician, said in a statement.