GILLETTE — People came out in droves this week to lament the impending federal vaccine mandates that are expected to affect Campbell County Health employees next month and may lead to a significant loss of staff.
Nearly 100 concerned citizens, hospital employees and board members packed the city hall meeting room, some of whom held signs in the audience opposing the federal vaccine mandates that are expected to require all health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Although the organization said it is supportive of the vaccine itself, it came out decidedly against vaccine mandates for its employees even though it may not have a choice in the matter.
“To be clear, our organization is not coming out against the vaccine,” said hospital board Chairman Adrian Gerrits. “We very much feel that you all should get vaccinated, or I think a lot of us feel that way. We are not for the vaccine mandate.”
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced the vaccine mandates expected to affect millions of Americans in health care and other private-sector fields.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has not provided the details of the mandates yet, but CCH officials said they expect the orders to come through sometime in October.
Not complying with the federal mandate would put the organization’s federal license at stake, which would affect its state license, which would effectively close the hospital, said CCH Chief Financial Officer Mary Lou Tate.
About 20 people spoke against the expected vaccine mandates.
“I stand against this 100 percent,” said Harvey Jackson, a former chairman of the hospital board, who added that he didn’t like “any mandate that makes an employee choose a job or a vaccine that, frankly, we don’t know enough about. It’s been a year.”
“It’s not right that Biden sent us this letter and is threatening you guys with federal money or you close your doors, that’s not right either,” he added.
Jackson recommended fighting the mandate and doing so by appealing to local and state legislators.
“You are the ones that are supposed to fight for us,” he said.
One of those legislators, Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, happened to join the public comment period not long after and spoke in opposition to the mandate and general reliance on the federal government.
“Federal funding is like crack to a lot of agencies in the state and we’re addicted to it,” McKeown said. “We’re at a point now where if we stick up for employees, we’re going to lose our federal funding, because we haven’t figured out a way to get along without the federal funding.”
McKeown went on to say that the vaccine mandates are against the Wyoming constitution and that the state needs to “draw a line in the sand.”
“I would implore you, do not push this vaccine mandate forward,” he said. “It will be catastrophic.”
Trustee Alan Stuber was quick to point out to McKeown that the same Wyoming statute McKeown had previously mentioned also calls on the state to be the ones to step in.
“Which means us as a hospital board, if we try to do this alone, it’s not going to happen,” Stuber said. “I would hope in the future you would be able to help us and help guide us, as we can’t do that alone. We are going to need a lot of help.”
Stuber, with the help of the board and legal counsel, crafted a letter that the board approved to send to Biden, Gov. Mark Gordon and other legislators regarding the vaccine mandates.
McKeown said he is trying to help and is working on “three of four” bills, some of which would call for a legislative vote before accepting “any federal funding” and another to make vaccine mandates illegal.
Gerrits also responded to McKeown and said the issue is more complicated than CCH just accepting federal money. He said the organization is caring for Medicare and Medicaid patients who are receiving federal money and have health care needs.
“Even if this was only government funding they were withholding, this is literally our licensure to practice medicine in the state of Wyoming as a hospital,” Gerrits told McKeown. “Losing our federal license means we can’t operate in the state so nobody would have a job.”
CCH CEO Colleen Heeter encouraged the public to also reach out to local legislators and make public comment with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in order to voice concerns but also to slow down the process.
“It’s important for you to reach out … it’s not just maybe a religious exemption, it’s not just a medical exemption, it could also be, why wouldn’t we test for antibodies? Why wouldn’t we do that and not give somebody a choice?”
While the official details of the mandate are not yet clear, Tate said that not complying with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidelines once passed down would create myriad problems for the organization, including possibly losing staff in all departments.
Although there is no round projection for how many employees may quit if forced to choose between jobs and jabs, the board and administrators fear it could have a significant impact on staffing and hospital operations.
About 39 percent of CCH employees had been vaccinated against COVID-19 as of this week.
“We don’t know anything yet,” Gerrits told the crowd. “All we know is that it is probably coming … we’re not here to put this on you, we’re here to try to figure out how to work in the framework that we’re given. We’re in the same spot you guys are.”
A combination of health care workers and generally concerned citizens continued the public dialogue by sharing their concerns with the expected vaccine mandate.
Tessa Crohn, a CCH employee for over four years, spoke out against the mandate as well.
“Myself and others here tonight are left wondering if we will still have a job in a few months,” she said. “It seems that if this mandate occurs, CCH will be facing losing a huge portion of our staff, resulting in closing our doors, or the possibility of losing funding for Medicare and Medicaid.
“I don’t really care how you feel about the vaccine, but like many here tonight, it’s the mandates I have an issue with.”
She added that there needs to be exemptions for medical, religious and natural immunity purposes.
Many of those in the crowd spoke of individual freedoms and constitutional rights, questioning the legality of the mandate and the motivations behind the federal government mandating it.
Alison Brady, a local physician assistant who does not work at CCH, said she helped organize some of the attendees through the organization Wyoming Freedom Keepers. A Facebook group that promoted the event, named “Stop the Mandate: Campbell County,” had more than 1,700 members as of Friday.
During her three minutes, Brady thanked the board for the letter it addressed to President Biden and said she stands from a position of medical freedom and informed consent.
“This month, you have been put in an impossible position. You are being blackmailed by our federal government,” Brady said. “They are interfering with your ability to make a decision for this community that fits with the people of this community.”
She estimated that 25 percent of the CCH staff would choose “termination over vaccination.”
Dr. Jessica Quinlan, an anesthesiologist for CCH, said she has worked in the hospital for about three years. At the meeting, she said the vaccine mandate goes against the ethical practice of medicine.
“I’ve been generally appalled and saddened by the state of science and medicine over the past year and a half,” she said. “I just want to reiterate that respect for patient autonomy and uncoerced consent is essential for any medical decision-making process and that this balance of power is essential to prevent abuse.”
Quinlan added that “if this is a requirement for the practice of medicine, it is not a field in which I can be a part anymore.”
Loud rounds of applause followed her speech to the board, as well as many of the other speakers that night.
Quinlan was not the only one to broach the idea of leaving CCH if the mandate comes through.
Vicki Sarver, a CCH clinical care supervisor in the maternal child unit said that 40 percent of her nursing staff will quit, or “be forced to end their career,” if the vaccine mandates go into place.
“We are at an inevitable place with this mandate if it’s pushed forward,” Sarver said. “Our doors will close, whether it be funding or whether it be the inability to sufficiently staff our hospital.”
Her department is not alone, she said. She said she expects each CCH department will feel similarly.
Terri Kinney, radiology manager and longtime CCH employee, said although she is vaccinated, she does not agree with the mandate. That said, she reminded the room that the mandate was not coming from the board and was over their heads.
“People need to look at their own lives, stay off social media and quit condemning everyone for whatever their choice is in life,” Kinney said. “It’s a personal choice. No one wants this mandate.”
Furthermore, she reminded the public of the other hard times the hospital is facing, in taking care of large numbers of sick patients daily.
“People are dying in our hospital halls. They’re dying in the ER,” Kinney said. “People who don’t work up there, they have no idea. They have no idea.”
Trustee Sara Hartsaw asked what the impact of staff leaving would have on the organization and operations.
“If we are forced to comply with federal mandates and we lose somewhere between 10 percent and 25 percent of our employees, how can we continue to run the operation?” Hartsaw asked.
Tate said that she began planning for those scenarios. For example, Tate said about half of the Home Medical Resources employees indicated they would quit.
About a month before the official vaccine mandate guidelines are expected to be announced, how many CCH employees may quit or what the impact would be to the organization is as unclear as the mandate guidelines themselves.
“We are truly not panicking right now because it is not, we don’t believe it’s right on our doorstep,” Heeter said.