The Colorado Board of Health is set to consider making its COVID-19 vaccine requirement for health care workers permanent in May, after temporarily extending the mandate Wednesday.
At the urging of Gov. Jared Polis, the board instituted the requirement for a broad swath of health workers in August on an emergency, non-permanent basis. The rule has been extended repeatedly since, and the board initially planned to vote on making it permanent in February. But the state Department of Public Health and Environment received more feedback from various health industry organizations to consider, and agency staffers have instead asked the board to delay the vote until that input can be addressed.
When the rule was initially instituted seven months ago, much of the state's health care industry broadly supported requiring health workers to be vaccinated. But when the board of health's requirement set a target of 100% compliance — allowing for some religious or medical exemptions — some of those organizations, like the Colorado Hospital Association and Colorado Health Care Association, which represents nursing home groups, expressed concern. They instead advocated for a 90% threshold, warning that staffing issues could be exacerbated by a blanket requirement.
But the health board didn't budge, keeping in line with a policy from the federal government, which has instituted its own requirement for health care workers nationwide.
At the board's meeting on Wednesday, Elaine McManis, the interim director of the health department's health facilities and emergency medical services division, said more than 94% of the state's health workforce has been vaccinated. Much of the remaining 6% has qualified for either medical or religious exemptions.
Representatives from every large hospital system in the state told The Gazette late last year that though some workers were let go because they wouldn't comply with vaccine requirements, the impact on staffing has been small. The larger impact on hospital staffing, they said, has been burnout and exhaustion after two years of an increasingly politicized pandemic.
They also stressed that the small group of people terminated spanned all types of workers, not just front-line providers.
McManis told the board on Wednesday that the health department would return to the board in May in order to have the vaccine requirement be made permanent. She said the state had heard feedback from the hospital association, the nursing home trade group and others, specifically about staffing and reporting requirements. When the rule was instituted last year, health facilities were required to report their vaccination levels twice every month.
Doug Farmer, the executive director of the nursing home group, said Wednesday his organization would prefer annual reporting. He said he would want the requirement to be similar to how flu vaccinations, which are also generally required, are handled.
"If we’re not at 90% or higher, unvaccinated people must take precautions," he said in an email, referring to flu vaccine requirements that he would like extended to include COVID-19. "Once this becomes endemic (like the flu) we’d rather not have permanent (regulations) that are based on a point in time while the pandemic is still active."
Much of the board supported extending the vaccine requirement on a temporary basis until a vote on making it permanent could be held in May. The lone dissenting voice was El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf, a new addition to the board. He said the vaccine should not be required of health workers and that he was leery of mandates generally. He also made reference to "dangers" from the vaccine, without providing evidence, though he said he's been vaccinated.
Hundreds of millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the U.S. alone, and serious side effects are extremely rare. The vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective.
Fellow board member Daniel Pastula, a neurologist and epidemiologist, said that health providers take an oath to "do everything we can to protect our patients," and he argued that includes getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
He said it's one thing for a person who's not working in medicine to choose not to get vaccinated, but for health providers, "it affects other people, including patients and other health care providers."
Ray Estacio, another board member and Denver Health physician, agreed and said he felt it was a "moral obligation" and "part of medical ethics" for providers to do no harm and, thus, get vaccinated against the disease.
The board voted 6-1, with VanderWerf voting no, to temporarily extend the requirement for health workers, with an eye toward a permanent vote in May.
Comments are open to Gazette subscribers only