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February 16, 2022

In the face of vaccine mandates, unvaccinated health care workers turn to religious exemptions

Daily Briefing

    As CMS' vaccine mandate takes effect in 24 states, more unvaccinated health care workers are seeking religious exemptions—which some health systems are now seriously considering amid pressing staff shortages, Heather Hollingsworth reports for the Associated Press.

    Should vaccination strategy switch from carrots to sticks?

    Unvaccinated health care workers turn to religious exemptions against mandates

    Under CMS' vaccine mandate, health care workers in 24 states were required to get their first dose of a Covid-19 or an exemption by Feb. 14. While many health care workers have gotten vaccinated, some have chosen to seek religious exemptions instead.

    For example, around 200 of the 620 workers at Cody Regional Health in Wyoming have asked for religious exemptions, and most of them have been granted. And in Holton Community Hospital in Kansas, 28 of its 193 workers have been granted religious exemptions.

    According to Hollingsworth, faith-based opposition to vaccination in the United States has historically been limited to a few small denominations, but more mainstream preachers have spoken out against Covid-19 vaccines during the pandemic.

    "That's new, and that's a problem," said Chris Bayer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "If you are not going to be vaccinated and you're going to be caring for the frail, the elderly, you should get out of health care."

    Separately, Marcella Dahl, a primary care clinic nurse in Montana, said she feels that some health care workers are taking advantage of religious exemptions to avoid being vaccinated. "Half of the people saying this don't even go to church," she said. "I think it puts everybody at risk."

    Rural health systems struggle with vaccine mandates and staff shortages

    However, several hospital leaders, particularly in rural areas, have said religious exemptions to vaccine mandates have been a way to retain crucial staff amid growing labor shortages.

    "Our position has been we would [want] everyone vaccinated," said Brock Slabach, COO for the National Rural Health Association. "But we also think that access to care is incredibly important."

    Troy Buntz, CEO of Community Hospital, said that while his hospital has rejected some religious exemption requests based on misleading reasoning, such as those based on political arguments, he doesn't know "if other people are even reading the exemptions as much as they probably should be." About 20% of the hospital's 320 employees have not been vaccinated, and about 35 have applied for exemptions.

    Separately, Randy Tobler, CEO of Scotland County Hospital in Missouri, said workers at his hospital have threatened to quit if they were required to be vaccinated. Currently, around 25% of the hospital's 145 employees remain unvaccinated, and 30 of them have been granted religious exemptions.

    "For people who want to judge what we're going in rural America, I'd love them to come and walk in our shoes for a little while, just come and sit in the desk and try to staff the place," Tobler said. (Hollingsworth, Associated Press, 2/14)

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