Staff begin leaving Montrose Memorial over state's COVID vaccine mandate; up to 10 resign

Residents gather at Demoret Park, Townsend Avenue and Main Street, to protest COVID vaccine requirements on Sept. 11. Montrose Memorial Hospital has seen up to 10 employees depart over state requirements to be vaccinated. 

Montrose Memorial Hospital has lost up to 10 employees because of the State Board of Health’s recent mandate that they either receive a COVID vaccine, or obtain an exemption and undergo twice-weekly testing.

“Unfortunately, it’s a very polarizing issue,” hospital CEO Jeff Mengenhausen said Thursday.

“It’s very strong feelings on both sides. The hospital definitely supports the vaccines, but we support our caregivers too in their decisions. We have lost, I would say, anywhere between six and 10 caregivers so far, who said they’re absolutely not going to take it and not going to do a waiver.”

Workers can seek a medical waiver or a religious exemption to the shot mandate. Per what the State Board of Health decided Aug. 30, they would be required to undergo testing twice a week.

A medical waiver has to be approved and signed by a physician, nurse practitioner, physician assistant or similar provider.

The religious exemption “is a little more open and gray (area),” Mengenhausen said. The hospital and its not-for-profit corporate operator, Montrose Memorial Hospital Inc. (MMHI) are working with attorneys to ensure an exemption that complies with the state rules, as well as ensures those with sincere religious objections can opt out.

Mengenhausen did not have figures on how many employees have sought an exemption, because the process is ongoing and the deadline to seek one is not until Sept. 30.

The hospital employs about 730, in many capacities, not just direct patient care. Its staffing numbers mean it would also be subject to new federal rules in the works, which would require businesses with 100 or more employees to have their workers vaccinated.

The state’s vaccine decision already applies to everyone working in the hospital. An employee who works completely outside of the facility does not fall under the mandate.

Objections began even before the state stepped in with vaccine requirements for workers at places like MMH. Dozens of staff members flowed into an Aug. 23 MMHI board meeting to express their concerns at the prospect of being forced to choose between getting a vaccine and keeping their jobs. Outside the meeting, more than 100 people filled the street to protest any such mandate.

A similar, smaller protest, took place at Demoret Park on Sept. 11.

“My key position and the board’s is to keep our caregivers. If we start losing caregivers then we can’t provide (full) care. We’re trying to walk that fine line very closely,” Mengenhausen said.

He said the hospital is a safe place to go, because of existing protocols, including personal protective equipment that has been effective for the last 18 months.

Some hospital workers in August questioned why PPE had been deemed sufficient protection prior to the vaccines coming online, but no longer was.

When asked, Mengenhauen said the shot requirement is a state mandate.

“We’re trying to be compliant with the law and work within the parameters of the law that was passed,” he said.

“We need more nurses, and front desk (staff) and everybody right now. To start losing them over a mandate is really hard to swallow.”

The MMHI board had not been formally considering a vaccine requirement at the time of the August protests. The state’s action took the choice away from the board, which hadn’t wanted to lose employees, its president, Kjersten Davis, said.

“We are saddened to lose any good employees. We understand people have to make their own personal decisions. We need to support and maintain our valuable employees,” she said.

Echoing Mengenahusen, Davis said the hospital had to follow both state and federal mandates.

Staffing challenges abounded before the pandemic and the more recent vaccine requirements.

“Nationally, there is a shortage of health care providers,” Davis said.

“Nursing has definitely been a tougher one. It has probably been our biggest struggle as it is, across the nation,” Mengenhausen said.

In Montrose, a particular recruitment hurdle is low availability and high cost when it comes to housing, Mengenhausen and Davis each said.

Since the pandemic was declared in 2020, health care facilities have been working to avoid a “surge” — too many patients, whatever their ailment, for available resources, due to influxes of COVID patients.

Montrose did not hit surge capacity last year and is still holding on, Mengenhausen said.

Here, staffing levels more so than COVID itself are driving bed shortages. A bed shortage doesn’t necessarily mean actual beds, but rather, the staff ratio necessary to care for the patients in those beds.

At MMH, each department has a different threshold for staff-to-patient ratio, so Mengenhausen gave the example of one nurse per four beds. When the ratio is exceeded, patients must be transferred — and MMH is not the only hospital grappling with this reality.

“We’re getting calls from Kansas. That’s how bad it’s gotten in our region,” Mengenhausen said.

Montrose Memorial coordinates with other hospitals for transfers, primarily St. Mary’s in Grand Junction and hospitals on the Front Range.

In August, Dr. Matthew Cotham, an emergency room physician, reported the department had been transferring more patients than usual because of bed availability issues.

Some states recently began rationing care as COVID patient volume soared; Idaho, with a vaccination rate of about 40%, implemented “crisis standards of care” because the number of those with the virus who required hospitalization, the Associated Press reported.

Locally, Montrose Memorial is carefully assessing who might need transferred, whatever the reason.

“We’re taking care of our critical patients and the physicians are leading that charge as to who would be the right patient to transfer out,” Mengenhausen said Thursday.

“We are doing well. We haven’t had to do many (recent) transfers out. There are peaks and valleys, but right now, we are sitting well.

“We don’t have a ton of COVID, so we’re able to get by, the but Emergency Department is pretty busy. The Emergency Department had the most patients ever seen in one month, in August, ever.”

He added: “If we did start to see a lot of COVID in our area, it would definitely put a lot of strain on our hospital.”

COVID-specific emergency room admissions between July and mid-August were 27, Cotham previously told the Montrose Daily Press. Among these patients, 22 were unvaccinated; four were vaccinated adults in their 80s and the vaccination status of the remaining patient was not known.

Cotham encourages the vaccine, which is FDA-approved and backed by the American Medical Association.

The MMHI board was told of one severe reaction to the vaccine, as those speaking Aug. 23 voiced worries about the risks of a vaccine for a disease with a survivability placed at about 99%.

The vaccine is more survivable than COVID, Cotham indicated.

Statewide, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 623 severe, adverse reactions to the shots, among 6.8 million doses administered, between last December and Aug. 13 — 0.009% — and 82 deaths, or 0.001% occurring after vaccination. In those cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could not determine the vaccine was the cause of death.

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

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