El Paso County commissioners on Tuesday voted to oppose state and federal mandates requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for employees at Colorado's licensed health care facilities, arguing the mandates are contributing to staff shortages at hospitals and encroach on personal freedoms.
“At our time of greatest need, it is unwise to force trained medical professionals out of an essential industry because a health care worker is following the medical advice of their personal physician, have a history of severe allergies, are pregnant, are following the tenet of their religious beliefs, or are exercising other strongly-held and constitutionally protected beliefs,” a draft proclamation passed unanimously by the board states.
Unlike ordinances that have the force of law, proclamations are essentially a statement of opinion from the board.
They're opposing an emergency order enacted by the state Board of Health in late August requiring all employees, contractors or support staff in licensed health care facilities be vaccinated against COVID-19 or participate in twice-weekly testing. Under the order, hospitals and other facilities must have 100% vaccination rates among its employees. The state counts medical exemptions toward a facility’s compliance rate, but not religious exemptions.
On Tuesday there were 2,710 medically exempt employees and about 12,130 religiously exempt employees in health care facilities statewide, a spokeswoman with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said.
Expansive federal vaccine mandates announced in early September require employers with more than 100 workers to have workers vaccinated or test weekly for the virus. That order affects about 80 million Americans, and about 17 million employees at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated.
Commissioners argued the mandates negatively impact hospital care because they may not have staff to adequately provide for patients.
“We’re hearing stories across the nation of especially rural hospitals shutting down, causing impacts that are widespread because of shortages as we fire people who have the skillset to take care of patients,” Commissioner Carrie Geitner said.
Hospital capacity in the Pikes Peak region on Tuesday remained strained, potentially limiting surgeries and other procedures at area facilities, according to El Paso County Public Health. Capacity includes a hospital’s space, supplies and staff.
The agency said 211 patients at local hospitals were infected with COVID-19 or suspected of having it, on par with the number of patients area hospitals were caring for in mid-December. Across Colorado, 92% of intensive care unit beds were in use Tuesday, according to state data, with 139 beds available.
UCHealth was caring for 103 patients with COVID-19 or suspected of having it on Tuesday morning — “the most since December,” spokeswoman Cary Vogrin said. Most of those patients are unvaccinated, she said.
This month UCHealth terminated 119 of its 26,500 employees statewide after they failed to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or a religious medical exemption by the system’s Oct. 1 deadline, including 54 employees in the Denver metro area, 32 in southern Colorado and 33 in northern Colorado. Employees who left UCHealth can reapply for their positions if they get vaccinated against the coronavirus, Vogrin said.
UCHealth maintains mandates have not adversely affected the hospital system’s staffing.
“Despite the loss of these employees, UCHealth’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement has helped to improve staffing. With broad vaccination rates, fewer employees are testing positive for COVID-19 and needing to be out of work while they recover,” Vogrin said.
Centura Health spokeswoman Becky Brockman didn't say Tuesday how many employees statewide the health system, which runs Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, had terminated because of the mandates, but said it was working to reach compliance with Colorado’s mandate by Nov. 1.
“We value our 21,000 caregivers and don’t want any associate to leave Centura over this mandate,” she said, adding that Centura Health “will fully comply with the state of Colorado’s emergency vaccine mandate rules across our entire health system, including our ministries in El Paso County.”
In a late September interview with The Gazette during a tour of local hospitals, Penrose-St. Francis Health Services Chief Executive Officer Dr. Brian Erling said he was “concerned that we will need to ration our services” or “may need to close a unit or limit inpatient procedures” if it were to lose employees because of the vaccine mandate.
Health officials and vaccine proponents have argued inoculation is the most effective tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Commissioners argued public agencies have no place to decide whether an individual should receive one. County data show just over 70% of El Paso County residents 12 and older are vaccinated with at least one dose and 64.1% have been fully vaccinated.
“Whatever happened to the family of protocols? Whatever happened to all the other choices that are out there, like staying home when you’re sick and social distancing? Scientifically, these are all effective ways at preventing the spread of the (virus),” Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said.
El Paso County hasn't enacted COVID-19 restrictions since the spring, when the state ceded to counties much of its authority to institute health measures. County Public Health officials have instead encouraged a layered prevention approach, including vaccination, wearing masks indoors, frequent handwashing, social distancing and staying home when ill.
The highly contagious Delta variant has spread quickly across El Paso County since July. The community has seen, on average, about 301 cases per 100,000 residents over seven days, county data show, on par with levels last seen in December. In July, El Paso County had about 60 people testing positive per 100,000 residents, on average.
In the proclamation, the commissions declare intent "to defend the rights of our citizens,” though it wasn’t immediately clear how the county could do so.
“We’re frustrated by the vaccine mandates ordered by Governor (Jared) Polis and President (Joe) Biden and our lack of legal authority to undo the mandates,” county commissioners said in a joint statement emailed to The Gazette. “We, along with our citizens, prize individual freedom, and we want to amplify the voices of citizens to ensure they know, as their elected representatives, we have their backs whether they choose to get the vaccine or not. We are prepared to advocate for their ability to make their own choice, legally when possible, at every opportunity where mandates, not just vaccine mandates, infringe upon their right to make a choice that is best for them.”
No residents spoke against the proclamation Tuesday. Colorado Springs teacher Stacy Adair was one of three who thanked the board for opposing vaccine mandates.
“Some people say, ‘Well, it’s not anything binding,’” Adair said. “But … when people stand up for what’s right, it encourages other people to stand up. I think you guys taking this stand will be encouraging to everyone who is fighting this overreach and this mandate from different employers.”