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Bakersfield hospital CEOs: How will vaccine mandate impact staffing?

Several Bakersfield hospital CEOs share a key concern as COVID-19 cases continue to flood their hospitals: How much worse will staffing levels be when the California Department of Public Health’s Sept. 30 deadline for all staff to be vaccinated arrives?

Hospitals, slammed with an influx of COVID-19 patients during the third surge and a shortage in staff members, now must contend with losing more staff because these individuals decline to be vaccinated and do not qualify for a medical or religious exemption.

“It’s a little bit of an unknown right now what the impact of the mandate is going to be,” said Bruce Peters, the president and CEO of Mercy Hospital. “Every loss of a person is going to hurt.”

The California Department of Public Health vaccine mandate requires paid and unpaid health care workers to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30. Two methods allow a person to bypass the order: a medical or religious exemption. The medical exemption must include a written statement by a licensed medical professional, which should not disclose the medical condition.

Unvaccinated workers in a health care facility must be tested at least twice a week, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Peters and Ken Keller, the president and CEO of Memorial Hospital, could not provide specific numbers regarding how many staff members will not meet the mandate in time.

However, Bryan Bucklew, president and CEO of the Northern and Central California Hospital Council, said the Central Valley faces the “least amount of uptake on vaccines,” by medical professionals.

This region of California also has high COVID-19 hospitalizations and case rates, Bucklew said. He encourages every health care worker to get vaccinated to fully protect patients.

“No one has died because of taking the vaccine,” Bucklew said. “This is the easiest way to make sure that you don’t get COVID.”

The California Nurses Association said it awaits information on the processes surrounding tests and is reviewing the California Department of Public Health mandate.

“We strongly believe all eligible people should be vaccinated, while respecting the need for medical and religious exemptions,” a statement by the CNA said.

Adventist Health, Bakersfield Heart Hospital, Dignity Health, Kaiser Permanente, Kern Medical and Kern Valley Healthcare District issued a joint statement Friday encouraging the public to get vaccinated, wear a mask and socially distance amid a precipitous rise in COVID-19 cases.

“Let’s work together to end this pandemic and get back to life as it should be,” the statement read.

Peters anticipates hiring more traveling nurses if staffing grows worse. Keller said the plans are “a work in progress.”

The demand for traveling nurses has risen greatly nationwide. The occupational pay rate hovers around $250 to $350 per hour, Bucklew said. This method is unsustainable; the inflexibility causes problems for patient care, he added. Often, communication regarding a patient’s status does not translate.

“Our hospitals are put in the unenviable position to enforce this mandate at a time when we’re also trying to treat patients in the middle of a pandemic,” Bucklew said.

Adventist Health President Daniel Wolcott said he would hire 80 qualified nurses immediately if he could find them because of the strain levied upon medical personnel. He anticipates losing less than a dozen of his staff because of the mandate.

Wolcott added that he knows the employment status of over 98 percent of his staff; either, the personnel are vaccinated, have an approved exemption or are in the process of receiving a vaccination. He anticipates the vaccination rate for workers will be above 80 percent by the end of Sept. 30.

Peters said the murky situation will be illuminated in the upcoming weeks, after understanding which employees’ religious and medical exemptions have been approved.

“I’m fearful for the worst and hopeful for the best,” he said.

The main problems from COVID-19 do not revolve around treating the virus; rather, the lack of staff adds another layer to fighting the pandemic, Bucklew said. Many are burned out and leaving the workforce in massive droves.

“It was a challenge before,” Bucklew said. “It’s an incredible challenge right now.”

You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @idesai98 on Twitter.