Staff-strapped hospital has approved 160 religious exemptions to COVID shot mandate

A crowd fills the street outside of Montrose Memorial Hospital (now Montrose Regional Health) in August in support of staff members pleading with the board of directors not to implement a COVID vaccine mandate at the facility. The state soon after made that requirement, but allowed for religious and medical exemptions. Since then, 160 MHR employees received a religious/sincerely held belief exemption and 20 received a medical one. (Montrose Daily Press/file photo)

Montrose County found itself in one of the state’s highest risk levels when entering 2021, all while contending with state-wide vaccine supply shortages and community-wide restrictions.

Montrose County Commissioners Sue Hansen, Roger Rash and Keith Caddy, along with Rep. Marc Catlin and Sen. Don Coram advocated for the county’s need for vaccines, successfully bringing in 2,800 Moderna doses, a thousand of which were a direct result of lobbying, according to Montrose County Spokesperson Katie Yergensen.

Following the acquisition of more vaccines, Montrose County dropped a risk level on the state’s dial in early February, moving from orange (high risk) to yellow (concern) as case rates and hospitalizations dropped.

“It was reminding him how serious it was in our community and how many seniors we have, and we’re lagging way behind,” Catlin said. “We weren’t getting enough vaccines to get caught up.”

Doubts circulated the nation and Montrose as concerned citizens questioned the safety and efficacy of the new vaccines.

Brian Spencer, the CDPHE’s Joint Information spokesperson, said that vaccination is regarded as the best protection against the virus and its effects.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has produced tragic, negative health outcomes for thousands of individuals and their families across the state and the world since the start of the pandemic,” said Spencer.

Vaccines remained a divisive issue throughout the county and its public entities and citizens. As eligibility guidelines rolled out for different levels of workers and citizens, religious exemptions entered the conversation.

MRH staff and community residents began protesting in support of hospital workers who opposed the vaccine mandate. With the healthcare industry so strapped for workers, the looming Nov. 1 deadline left many entities wondering how to manage the divisive situation.

While the hospital didn’t implement the mandate prior to the state’s deadline, it lost around 10 staff members in September.

Emergency room physician Matthew Cotham noted that from August-September, the number of patients waiting two or more hours for an ER doctor had increased from 4% to 13%, due in part to the surging pandemic.

“We have had to transfer out three times the amount we usually do this year, mostly because of a lack of bed availability,” Cotham said.

The hospital recently approved 160 religious exemptions for the vaccine and an additional 20 medical exemptions. MRH CEO Jeff Mengenhausensaid that the decision was a “balancing act” between the entity’s support for vaccinations and its need to retain staff amidst a surge that had thus far killed an estimated 800,000 Americans and 131 Montrose residents.

Cases spiked as the pandemic surged in Montrose in October, the second highest recorded month with the most reported cases in 2021.

Following increased public demand for boosters, the county partnered with Peak Professionals to set up a temporary mass vaccination clinic held in November.

The topic of vaccines and masks was a significant bookmark in the 2021 for the Montrose County School District.

The district began a weekly rapid testing program in November that required full time employees to participate in the weekly tests or submit proof of vaccination. Per the CDPHE, if the school district reaches a minimum 70% vaccination rate, it will be exempt from quarantine.

“We’re going to conform to whatever the state requires us to do, and we’re going to make sure that in all our policies everything we do is prioritizing keeping students and staff healthy and safe, as we always do,” Matt Jenkins, MCSD spokesperson said.

Cassie Knust is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.

Cassie Knust is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.

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