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Rural hospitals face potential worsening staffing shortages with looming federal vaccine mandate

While vaccination rates are high among staff at some rural hospitals, there's the prospect of losing crucial frontline workers, which is the case in Dimmit County.

CARRIZO SPRINGS, Texas — Staffing shortages at rural hospitals could become even greater with expanded vaccine requirements announced by the Biden administration earlier this month.

The mandate will apply to health care facilities that receive Medicaid or Medicare funding in an effort to protect patients and staff while slowing spread of the aggressive Delta variant.

John Graves, CEO and president of Dimmit Regional Hospital, noted 94% of staff are vaccinated.

“I think that’s a testament to the staff themselves really encouraging people in the community and other hospital staff members to get vaccinated,” Graves said.

Contracted out-of-state workers have proven beneficial to daily operations at Dimmit Regional Hospital but there remains a need for more health care workers, especially in the ICU.

“The number of hospitalizations for us weren’t as many for us over this third surge. I think the struggle was getting our patients out to a higher level of care.”

Like other rural hospitals with limited staffing and care capabilities, there’s high concern surrounding the effects a vaccine mandate could potentially have on daily operations.

Graves is worried about the remaining 6% percent of staff who are unvaccinated.

“Those are critical staff so emergency room personnel and OR staff. If for some reason they mandate these vaccines, those people are going to walk,” he said. “What’s going to happen is, may not be able to deliver a baby because we don’t have the staff to deliver that baby, may not be able to deliver an emergency C-section. Just your bread and butter kind of things.”

The Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals (TORCH)’s CEO John Henderson has heard strong opinions from both sides of the debate on vaccine mandates.

He stressed it’s already difficult in some communities to attract nurses and other vital frontline workers due to the competition.

“Rural hospitals in particular are having trouble competing with rates and sign on bonuses and that’s coupled with nurses who are just tired of it and I don’t necessarily blame them for sitting this wave out,” Henderson said.

Such a federal mandate could exacerbate the staffing issue experienced among health care facilities not just in Texas but nationwide.

“Ultimately, they need to be ready to act and comply with whatever the standard becomes but we’ve got quite a few rules to be published and court challenges that will play out between now and then.”

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