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Rural healthcare facilities worried about staff impacts with looming vaccine deadline

TORCH's John Henderson said the facilities he works report most of the rural hospitals have 70-80% vaccination rates at the moment.

SAN ANTONIO — Time is ticking for Texas health care workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, or seek an exemption. But, there are ongoing concerns, especially among the rural health care community as to how the mandate could impact staffing.

“The Supreme Court has ruled, and like it or not, you need to get your staff vaccinated,” said John Henderson, president and CEO of TORCH (Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals).

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) requires federally-regulated healthcare facilities to have their staff fully vaccinated by March 21. Exemptions for religious or medical reasons are an option for employees.

Henderson noted while many of the facilities he works with are pro-vaccine, they worry about the mandate’s effect on staffing and daily operations.

“Most of our rural hospitals are in the 70-80% [vaccination rate] range. So they are trying to just get as many as them vaccinated, or exempted, prior to that deadline,” he said. “The harsh reality in rural Texas is you don’t have to lose many staff in terms of numbers to threaten your ability to provide care to the community. Will we be able to deliver babies? Will we be able to staff our emergency rooms?”

Henderson stressed rural medical centers can’t afford to not comply with the CMS rules since they risk losing federal funding or even shutting down.

“The consequences would just be too severe. Some of these communities, half of their patients are Medicare patients, and you can’t take care of those folks without getting paid for it,” Henderson said.

A Methodist Healthcare spokesman said 85% of hospital and emergency room-based employees are vaccinated. The remaining 15% have either filed an exemption or have not yet logged their status, according to the media representative.

Baptist Health released a statement in response to the CMS mandate.

Baptist Health System is working to comply with the CMS federal mandate requiring all individuals working in our hospitals, to receive a completed primary vaccination series for COVID-19 or to receive a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance exemption or medical exemption by March 21. We are providing all employees with the necessary resources and support to ensure full compliance by the stated due date. Science indicates the COVID vaccines in the U.S. are effective, safe and the best protection against the virus and its variants.

 Baptist Health System continues its 119-year tradition as a faith-based healthcare organization in San Antonio, and as the city’s fourth largest civilian employer, our system respects the religious beliefs and customs of its patients, employees and the community. As with all protocols and decision making, Baptist Health System considers the safety of its patients, employees and community as its highest priority.

CHRISTUS Health also provided insight into their efforts to encourage vaccinations.

"Throughout this pandemic, our focus has been to keep our communities safe and healthy. To that end, we have strongly encouraged Associates, and the communities we serve, to get vaccinated, among other safety measures, as we know it offers the best protection against infection. Last month, the Supreme Court upheld the CMS rule requiring medical facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid to require COVID-19 vaccines. Our focus will continue to be the health, safety, and dignity of our Associates, physicians and patients."

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