COVID; illnesses widen Montrose Memorial Hospital staffing gap as growth pushes capacity

Montrose Memorial Hospital sees COVID, other illnesses take toll on staffing levels as vaccine mandates shift. (Montrose Daily Press/file photo)

COVID-19 and other illnesses, plus resignations over vaccine requirements, are exacerbating already tight staffing at Montrose Memorial Hospital, all while demand is growing.

“We are slowly starting to see it (COVID among employees) pick up and just other illness on top of it,” CEO Jeff Mengenhausen said Tuesday, Oct. 5.

“Right now, we have about 40 caregivers who are out sick. Eleven of them would be COVID; five more are just having reactions to the COVID vaccine. We’ve had a little more sickness, but it’s not all COVID.”

Mengenhausen also said the vaccine reactions being reported have not been severe, to his knowledge. More than twice as many employees are out sick with COVID than are out because of vaccine reactions. Among those stricken with the coronavirus “some were vaccinated; some weren’t,” Mengenhausen said.

“It’s community-spread. We’re using all the proper PPE (personal protective equipment). We haven’t really tied it to here, to the hospital.”

The hospital now has more than 80 open positions.

Although the state has proposed cutting back requirements that 100% of hospital and similar facility workers are to be vaccinated against COVID, there are concerns MMH could lose more vaccine-reluctant staffers before the changes are firmed up. As previously reported, eight to 10 hospital employees resigned over the requirement to either be vaccinated or undergo twice-weekly testing. (Federal mandates also are at play, which would trump state requirements; Mengenhausen said MMH is waiting to see the final rules there.)

The Colorado State Board of Health has proposed cutting requirements that 100% of hospital or nursing home workers be vaccinated to 90%, according to The Colorado Sun. Religious exemptions, which currently do not count toward facility compliance rates, would be counted under the proposed changes, which the board expects to again take up on Oct. 21

“We’re still putting that together, but we’ll be able to hit the 90% that we’re shooting for. It’s going to be tight, but I think we can get there,” Mengenhausen said, adding the constantly shifting regulations are difficult to navigate.

“A lot of us are kind of waiting for that Oct. 21 meeting. It was 100%, now it’s 90%. It is changing a little bit.

“Our goal is to keep our caregivers because we value them. It’s just making it harder. It’s such a polarizing subject.”

Mengenhausen said there have not been additional staff resignations over the vaccine requirements, but the deadline for full compliance is not until the end of the month.

“We do have concerns we could lose another 20 by the first drop-dead deadline. That, we’re really concerned with, on top of us currently having 83 open positions,” he said.

If there are 20 more departures over the vaccine issue, more than 100 positions would sit empty as growth pushes regional demand for services and a housing crisis makes it harder for potential recruits to find a place to live. The staff crunch is hospital-wide, not in nursing alone.

“It will hurt our bed capacity, which is a big concern,” Mengenhausen said.

This past weekend, there wasn’t a spare bed to be easily found statewide, he said, so there were not many options for transferring some patients out of MMH for care. The hospital is looking at expanding its bed numbers — but doing so will require even more staff.

“We’re trying to figure out ways to grow our bed numbers, but that would require more caregivers. We’re growing at the same time we’re trying to deal with this pandemic and now the mandate on top of it,” Mengenhausen said.

“It’s kind of a double whammy for us, just with COVID and sickness, but on top of that, we’re growing and trying to keep up with the growth. So it’s kind of hitting us on both sides.”

Despite the challenges, the hospital is moving in the right direction to continue serving Montrose, as well as surrounding communities as a regional care center; it also remains focused on assuring access, he said.

The hospital has space to add more beds, including to address COVID cases, if necessary. If the situation worsens, Montrose Memorial could consider reverting to a strategy for freeing up beds that was deployed at the start of the pandemic last year — canceling elective surgeries — but that comes at a cost to patient wellbeing, as well as to the hospital’s bottom line.

“We really don’t want to do that. We’re addressing these challenges,” Mengenhausen said.

“It’s not easy, but we’re in a good place. It’s just making it more difficult.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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