MADISON — As Gundersen Health System inches closer to its COVID vaccine mandate deadline, health care workers standing up for their rights are looking at the unemployment line.
The La Crosse-based health system last month announced all of its approximately 7,600 employees must be vaccinated by Nov. 1 or face losing their jobs. A Gundersen nurse tells Wisconsin Spotlight that employees who refuse to get the shot by that date will be placed on one-week unpaid suspension. They could be shown the door if they continue to resist.
Gundersen officials did not return Wisconsin Spotlight’s request for comment, but it appears about 15 percent of employees have to date opted not to get vaccinated.
Some have sought exemptions. The health care chain has taken a hardline stance on the subject, the Gundersen nurse tells Wisconsin Spotlight.
“If you ask for a religious exemption, they sit you down in front of a panel and grill you,” the employee said. “They are testing people’s religious exemptions. I suspect at some point in the future they will start disallowing those exemptions. There is pressure for that as well.”
Medical exemptions have been tightly restricted as well, according to the nurse, who has been with Gundersen Health System for about 10 years.
“These are not decisions made between you and your doctor,” the employee said. Physicians are provided a form to fill out, and then “hospital corporate” determines whether the exemption is valid. The only medical exemption allowed, according to the nurse, is if an employee has previously had an anaphylactic reaction to an ingredient in the vaccine.
“(Gundersen) is overriding their own providers,” the nurse said.
Gundersen staff had until the beginning of this month to declare their vaccination status, and whether they had an exemption. The nurse said hundreds of employees didn’t declare their status so the system extended the timeline.
“COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising locally and nationally, driven almost entirely by the highly contagious Delta variant and by those who have not been vaccinated against the virus,” Gundersen said in a statement to the press last month. “COVID-19 vaccine is free, is proven to be safe, and is the surest way to protect everyone against this virus,” said Gundersen Health System’s statement.
It’s not safe for everyone. Hundreds of Gundersen employees have concerns about getting the shot for a variety of reasons. For many, compulsory vaccines as a condition of employment is an assault on basic civil liberties.
They’re fighting back.
Some Gundersen staff have paid for a billboard urging the health care system to, “Prevent a Healthcare Staffing Crisis. Stop the Mandate.”
Hospitals and health care clinics pushing COVID vaccine mandates are playing with fire. Gundersen, according to the nurse who spoke with Wisconsin Spotlight, is already dealing with a severe workers shortage, as is much of the nation. And it’s not just medical staff.
“We’ve never seen a staffing situation this bad, and that’s from people who have worked here for 20, 30 years,” the nurse said. “If you look at the lower-wage staff, laundry, custodial, kitchen, we have a lot of vacancies, and it’s really impacting patient care. Rooms can’t get clean towels and sheets. The cafeteria is serving cold cut sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly because they don’t have enough people to serve hot meals.”
The American Nurses Association earlier this month sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services begging the agency to declare the ongoing nursing shortage a national crisis, citing overwhelmed health systems and burnt out staff, according to HealthCare Finance.
“ANA is deeply concerned that this severe shortage of nurses, especially in areas experiencing high numbers of COVID-19 cases, will have long-term repercussions for the profession, the entire healthcare delivery system, and ultimately, on the health of the nation,” the group wrote to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra.
The group notes that Mississippi, for example, has seen a decrease of 2,000 nurses since the beginning of 2021, while hospitals in Tennessee are operating with 1,000 fewer staff than at the beginning of the pandemic, prompting them to call on the National Guard for reinforcements.
“At the same time, Texas is recruiting 2,500 nurses from outside the state, a number that still will fall short of expected demand; while Louisiana had over 6,000 unfilled nursing positions open across the state before the Delta variant caused a surge in cases.
According to a survey from Trusted Health, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused 39% of nurses ages 20-39 to report that their commitment to nursing has decreased,” HealthCare Finance reported.
The Gundersen nurse says the minority of staff opposed to the mandate have received a good deal of support from their vaccinated co-workers.
“They don’t want to be more short-handed than they are now,” the employee said. “A lot of them are really concerned the next policy will be the hospital can tell them whatever booster to get as well. That’s handing over their autonomy.”