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Rural hospital may have to turn patients away if too many employees leave because of vaccine mandate

Montrose Memorial Hospital could lose up to 30 employees because of the state's mandate. They already have more than 80 open positions.

MONTROSE, Colo. — A rural hospital in Colorado says it will likely have to start turning people away if even more workers leave over the state's vaccine mandate.

Montrose Memorial Hospital CEO Jeff Mengenhausen said they've already lost 10 caregivers and they are expecting to lose another 20 soon. It comes at a time when the facility already has more than 80 open positions.

"We got a call from Kansas seeing if we had available beds, on the Western Slope," he said. "That's how bad it has gotten. Now with staffing levels, we physically have the beds, but we don't have the staff to actually cover the beds and take care of the patients."

The state mandate required facilities to ensure 100% of employees, direct contractors, and support staff received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine no later than September 30. 

RELATED: Colorado health care workers face deadline to get COVID vaccine

If a facility is unwilling to comply, and unwilling to work with the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) to get into compliance, state health officials said they will take enforcement actions. 

"Escalated enforcement actions could include survey and notice of violations, installation of a temporary management company, license revocation, and summary suspension," CDPHE spokesperson Brian Spencer said.

Even though the vaccine mandate deadline was Thursday, Mengenhauser said he's hearing he may have more time to get in compliance before he has to let go of staff.

"I am going to keep my caregivers to get us another month to see what the regulation is before we start making hard, fast decisions," he said. 

At this point, though, the rule hasn't changed, and CDPHE said facilities that are unwilling to comply are subject to enforcement actions now. 

"What we have been told is that enforcement will begin effective last Friday, but that enforcement will be progressive in nature," Doug Farmer, President of the Colorado Health Care Association (CHCA), said. 

CHCA represents nursing homes across the state. 

"If they have to let that many staff members go, they will have to find someplace to put displaced residents," Farmer said. "They simply can’t care for them without the staff."

Facilities not in compliance are waiting to see what happens next. 

"We support the vaccine as a hospital and healthcare, but we also support caregivers and we need to keep our caregivers so we can take care of our communities," Mengenhausen said. 

Montrose Memorial Hospital has received a number of exemption requests from staff members. At the same time, Mengenhausen is also noticing an uptick in exemptions for the flu vaccine.

A facility may seek a waiver of the 100% vaccination requirement on the basis that one or more people have claimed a religious exemption. CDPHE said they have received about 700 requests from facilities. Requested waivers are not active until CDPHE reviews and approves them.

RELATED: Colorado hospitals could turn to traveling nurses in a staffing shortage, but it'll cost them