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Rural Colorado healthcare providers worry vaccine mandate will create staffing issues

Eight providers in Otero County sent letters to state leaders to share their concerns.

MOFFAT COUNTY, Colo. — There's growing concern in rural counties across Colorado about how the COVID-19 vaccine mandate will impact staffing at their healthcare facilities.

All employees in licensed settings in Colorado must receive their first dose of the vaccine by September 30. 

In Moffat County, where less than half of the eligible population has received one dose as of Sunday, a hospital may be hiring quite a few positions. 

"We have had trouble backfilling those people who have left, and now with the vaccine mandate, it is definitely going to present some challenges across the board for us, like other hospitals, for staffing," said Jennifer Riley, Chief Operating Officer for Memorial Regional Health (MRH)

Riley believes 80% of her staff is either vaccinated or will become vaccinated by the end of the month. That leaves 20% of staff members who may not meet the deadline. 

Riley said she won't really know how many employees she could lose over the vaccine mandate until October. 

"As a hospital, we believe it is the right thing to do. We believe in the vaccine," she said. "Administratively, we understand why it is important. But on the business side and on the human side it is very difficult when you are talking about losing people."

MRH said nine people have already put in formal resignations or walked off the job because of the mandate. 

"Recruiting to a rural area is very difficult, and you are talking in some cases about some very specialized jobs," Riley said. 

Eight healthcare providers in Otero County sent letters to state leaders to share their concerns about the mandate. 

Arkansas Valley Medical Center anticipates losing up to 26 nurses, according to Chief Executive Officer Lynn Crowell. Arkansas Valley Hospice in La Junta said the mandate could potentially shut their doors. Their executive director asked the state to rescind the mandate.

RELATED: Colorado rural health care non-profit worried about vaccine mandate

Otero County Commissioners are requesting the same thing, or for the state to give rural providers the ability to waive the mandate or rescind it. They're concerned rural communities like theirs will only push them into a catastrophic shortage of direct care staff, as well as the administrative and support staff necessary to support those care providers.

"I think it ought to be a choice. Everyone has their choice to either get it or not get it," Otero County Commissioner Jim Baldwin said. "It is not up to the government what you do with your body."

Over in Moffat County, the county's only hospital is hoping more employees get the shot, but they're preparing for a tough recruiting season. 

"The challenge is going to be just finding the qualified people," Riley said. 

People can seek medical or religious exemptions from their employers. 

The state Board of Health will convene again in October to consider the rule requiring vaccinations.

RELATED: 77% of long term care workers vaccinated against COVID-19, says CDPHE