Sidney Health Center is requiring all workers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 as a condition of employment. The decision is based on a rule established by Medicare/Medicaid requiring vaccination in order to participate in those programs.

Jennifer Doty, CEO of Sidney Health Center sat down with the Sidney Herald and discussed the ruling, its impact on the hospital and the reasons the hospital chose to comply with the requirement.

“Like every hospital in the state, we received notice on Nov. 4 that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued an interim final rule that required COVID-19 vaccinations for workers in most healthcare settings,” said Doty. The list basically included all entities that participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Doty said the rule required all eligible workers to be vaccinated, regardless of what their duties were at the facility. The list included contracted positions, licensed positions, volunteers, students and trainees. The deadline for being fully vaccinated was set at Jan. 4, 2022. A deadline for receiving the first dose was also set at Dec. 5, 2021. In order to report to work on Dec. 6, employees must be able to show they had received the first dose of a two-dose vaccine or the one-dose vaccine.

The rule also allowed for certain exemptions. Employees could apply for either a medical exemption or a religious exemption. Forms were then created for staff members and are currently available to each staff member.

According to Doty, the hospital had received information that the rule was coming and began doing an analysis prior to receiving the mandate.

“We began looking at things like ‘Why are we here?’ ‘Who do we serve?’ and can we financially be a health organization if we’re not participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs?”

Doty said the decision came down to the hospital being able to provide service for those in the community that receive Medicare and Medicaid. “We also have a license to operate. If we’re excluded from those programs we also don’t have a license which impacts our other payor contracts and it impacts our malpractice insurance, so for us to be able to continue to keep our doors open and serve the community and also be an employer to over 500 people, the decision was made that we have to comply with the conditions of participation,” said Doty.

According to numbers provided by Doty, about two-thirds of the staff is currently vaccinated.

Counting staff members, contract workers and volunteers, the hospital had 621 people that needed to be reported as of the most recent count. Of those, about 384 have been vaccinated. Of the remainder, some are still pending and some have filled out the exemption form.

“There’s been some concern that our care providers, our physicians, our nurses, our pharmacists, that there’s a low percentage in that group,” said Doty. The hospital nurses are currently at 62% vaccinated; for the medical staff (physicians, etc.) that number jumps to 93%; the Cancer Center staff and the pharmacy staff are 88% vaccinated; emergency room physicians are 100% vaccinated and about 80% of the nurses working in emergency services are currently vaccinated.

“I feel pretty confident that that department will be able to continue to operate without a massive disruption to that service line,” said Doty about the ER.

While Doty said she is not concerned about some departments, there will be issues in other areas. “There will be a disruption. Any time you lose staff there is a disruption. We’re doing our best to put contingency plans in place to try to mitigate any disruption of service for as many service lines as possible but there are no guarantees. This is a massive change and our employees have to make difficult decisions. How long that will be, well, time will tell,” said Doty. She said one example could be the elimination of elective surgeries similar to what was done at the start of the pandemic.

Doty said the hospital will be transparent throughout the process and let the public know which services are available or when those that are put on hold can be reopened. “We’ll work hard to keep the community informed.”

The decision was not made by one person. Several groups and individuals were consulted before the final decision was made to comply with the mandate, said Doty. The board of directors was involved in the decision as was the senior leadership team, the medical team and department directors were all consulted before the final decision was made. The final decision came from the hospital leadership and board of directors.

Hospital leadership also looked at how other hospitals in the state were handling the mandate as well.

At Wednesday’s annual meeting, Richard St. Germain, Director of Food Service for Sidney Health Center, spoke against the mandate. Germain and more than 30 employees attended the meeting to voice their concerns. “More than 30 employees showed up here tonight who want to keep their jobs but also their freedom to not take the mandate for the shot and put chemicals in their bodies,” said St. Germain.

He then talked about how the staff was treated when the COVID-19 pandemic started. “There were banners all over. Heroes. Heroes. We were proud to work at Sidney Health Center. Now, we’re separated. Vaccinated. Unvaccinated. A lot of us will lose our jobs on Dec. 6 because of this mandate. We don’t think that’s fair.”

St. Germain then gave an example of how employees have been treated lately. “I was in a meeting. At the end of the meeting, the CEO said, ‘All of you people who’ve had the shot, come up and get your buttons. You that didn’t get the shot, take the walk of shame.’”

St. Germain said he was not going to file for a religious exemption because that is not the reason he is not taking the shot. “It’s my right not to take the shot. St. Germain suggested offering free care to those who were on Medicare and Medicaid until the issue has been settled.

He concluded by saying he was a former Marine who fought for freedom and is doing so now.

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