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Colorado rural health care non-profit worried about vaccine mandate

As deadlines for vaccine mandates near, some medical providers are scrambling to figure out what they might do should some of their employees walk.

COLORADO, USA — As deadlines for vaccine mandates near, some medical providers are scrambling to figure out what they might do should some of their employees walk. 

Colorado Rural Health Center is a non-profit that works with health care systems in the 47 rural counties in Colorado. Its CEO, Michelle Mills, spoke to 9NEWS to share their concerns. 

What is the Colorado Rural Heal Center?
Mills: We are the State Office of Rural Health as well as the Rural Health Association in Colorado so we serve all 47 rural counties and work with all the rural hospitals and rural health clinics throughout rural Colorado.

What was the pandemic like in rural counties?
Mills: Right at first when it started, there weren’t any [COVID] cases out there. So many voluntarily elected to cancel their elective surgeries and went more virtual, and so they lost a lot of money. We had 22 rural hospitals that were operating in the red prior to the pandemic, and so we’re not really sure what that data looks like now, but revenue was way way down obviously because visits were down.

How many health care facilities do you work with in rural Colorado?
Mills: We have 32 critical access hospitals, and we’ve got about 52 federally certified rural health clinics – and another 50 clinics that are out there.

In a rural hospital, the average daily census can usually be between one and three patients typically.

Are rural hospitals able to care for COVID patients?
Mills: Some. They’re able to take care of [COVID patients] if they have an ICU in their facility, and of course, if they have enough ventilators. If they don’t, they already have a regular transfer patterns with urban facilities for just obviously other things like stroke and heart attacks and things of that nature, but obviously we have limited capacity in rural to be able to keep a number of COVID patients.

What has the response been at rural facilities in regards to the vaccine mandates?
Mills: A lot of the facilities are working really hard to try and get policies in place to be able to deal with the mandates that are coming out. We’re really seeking additional information on what are the criteria that would qualify for a waiver, for example, what would qualify for medical or religious type of exemption.

Is there a concern that a lot of health care workers will quit if they have to abide by the COVID vaccine mandate?
Mills: Yes, absolutely. So in rural, we already have workforce issues with doctors but also especially with nurses which I’m sure we’ve seen all across the country with nursing shortages. But yes, we’re very concerned about that and concerned about entire departments that we’ve heard that are saying they’re going to quit, which is going to leave choices of you know do we have to stop some services or not.

It’s always a terrible thing when you can’t serve your community in the way that you want to be able to serve them, and so for example, if a facility has an OB [Obstetrics Department] as one of their services, and they have to shut that down because they don’t have staffing to be able to do that, that means a mom is going to have to travel that much further to get to the next facility, and hopefully they make it to the next facility before they have their baby.

How is Colorado Rural Health Center helping these rural facilities with the mandate process?
Mills: We’ve been working with our other rural partners to be able to try and gather this information from our hospitals, and our clinics to try and figure out the best course – and so some of the things that we’re going to start working on is really can we get some exemptions for rural and what does that look like and what is the process for that. That way we can feed that out to people to make things most efficient. 

We’re also going to try and see if there are collaboration opportunities, so for example, if there is a facility that lost folks in one department maybe a closer by facility still has staffing and we can share that somehow.

Is there an estimate on how many health care workers rural facilities will lose?
Mills: I think there’s an estimate of about 10% per facility is what is being calculated.

Is there an area in particular you are most worried about in Colorado?Mills: I think more on the eastern plains we’re a little more worried about folks. We’ve got 718,000 people that live in rural and all deserve great health care too and we just really want to make sure that happens. 

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