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Resisting the mandate

By M.D. Kittle

Some Gundersen Health System employees assert things are bad at the La Crosse-based health care system, and they’re only going to get worse when a COVID vaccine mandate goes into effect next month.

Gundersen in August announced all of its approximately 7,600 employees must be vaccinated by Nov. 1 or face losing their jobs. As Wisconsin Spotlight reported last month, 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 employees opposed to the mandate rallied Thursday near the health care provider’s La Crosse campus. Organizers say more than 100 people turned out in solidarity. They say they got significantly more honks than “middle fingers.”

David Anderson, a long-time Gundersen registered nurse and representative of the Coulee Region Healthcare Workers Against COVID Vaccine Mandates, said management is not being transparent about COVID, vaccines or “about their current barriers to caring for our tri-state region.”

He blames poor leadership decisions, saying they have resulted in a “dire staffing situation.” Anderson said the hospital regularly is forced to divert labor and delivery, critical care, general medical and surgical patients to other facilities, and the system has experienced “unprecedented” ambulance diversion. In April, Gundersen had about 600 open positions, a record number, Anderson said. Today, it’s around 1,000 vacant positions.

The problem isn’t COVID, the nurse contends. It’s senior leadership’s “bad decisions and coercive actions” that have created a “toxic, stressful, and distrustful work environment.” And employees are leaving in droves.

In a matter of days, Anderson says, things will deteriorate further and faster if the health care system goes through on its threat to fire employees who refuse to get vaccinated.

“Terminating highly qualified staff is not a viable solution to the dire staffing situation.  An immediate and drastic course correction is needed,” Anderson said.

As of last month, it appeared about 15 percent of employees had not been vaccinated. If that number holds hundreds of employees could lose their jobs.

Opponents demand Gundersen stop the COVID vaccine mandate and accept all exemptions. They also seek the removal of CEO Scott Rathgaber.

Gundersen officials did not return Wisconsin Spotlight’s requests for comment. The health care system has defended its mandate.

“COVID-19 vaccine is free, is proven to be safe, and is the surest way to protect everyone against this virus,” Gundersen said in a statement.

Other health care systems have issued similar mandates.

Earlier this week, more than 100 people turned out for a protest against the COVID-19 vaccine mandate at Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire. Nurse Melissa Clyde, who quit last week over the mandate, told WEAU she attended the rally to support her peers and called the mandate ‘unacceptable.’

“I feel like harm’s being placed on our healthcare workers right now,” Clyde said. “And it’s not a choice. They’re being mandated, so it’s not a choice at this point, and that’s unacceptable.”

A Mayo Clinic spokeswoman said the vaccination rate among staff is 88 percent.

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