Wyoming Vaccine Mandate Could Stretch Hospital Staffing, Officials Say

Administrators face “a delicate balancing act” in a state where hospitals are crowded, workers are scarce and vaccine resistance is widespread.,

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Vaccine mandates complicate hospital staffing woes in Wyoming.

Nurses and administrative workers completing paperwork at a vaccine clinic at a school in Cheyenne, Wyo., in August.
Nurses and administrative workers completing paperwork at a vaccine clinic at a school in Cheyenne, Wyo., in August.Credit…Rachel Woolf for The New York Times
  • Sept. 30, 2021, 8:22 a.m. ET

The coronavirus is raging in the northern states of the Mountain West, especially Wyoming, where the Delta variant is tearing through one of the least vaccinated populations in the country.

Wyoming is tied with its neighbor Idaho for the second-lowest vaccination rate of any U.S. state. Each has fully vaccinated 41 percent of residents, compared with 56 percent nationally. And newly reported virus cases are at their highest levels since November in Wyoming and neighboring Montana.

Covid-19 patients are filling Wyoming’s hospitals and stretching health care workers thin, leading to the cancellation of elective procedures at some hospitals. Some patients are traveling as far away as Texas for care.

Unlike hospitals in many states, most in Wyoming are not requiring their employees to be vaccinated. Some hospital administrators worry that President Biden’s national vaccine mandate for health care workers, which has yet to take effect, could prompt some workers to quit, making staffing shortages more severe.

“We’re near bursting at the seams, and a lot of that has to do not really with the number of beds we have available, but with the staffing for those beds,” said Eric Boley, the president of the Wyoming Hospitals Association, a trade group that represents most of the state’s hospitals.

“I don’t think they realize what a delicate balancing act it is to try to have enough trained staff,” he said of federal officials.

Gov. Mark Gordon of Wyoming has encouraged vaccinations but resisted requiring them. He issued a directive in May that prevents state agencies, boards and commissions from restricting access based on vaccine status, and the state is preparing a possible legal challenge to Mr. Biden’s mandates.

Mr. Gordon has activated the Wyoming National Guard to provide nonmedical support for hospitals with staff shortages, and allocated more than $20 million to help hospitals hire and pay extra workers.

Dr. Mark Dowell, the health officer for Natrona County, said the governor’s approach was out of sync with the reality on the ground.

“It’s become political instead of medical,” said Dr. Dowell, an infectious disease specialist. “There has been basically no major activity at a state level to acknowledge or deal with this — it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist.” He added that because anti-vaccine sentiment was so pervasive in Wyoming, vaccine mandates were needed “simply to save lives.”

Many health care workers do not need the extra push, said Mike McCafferty, the chief executive of Sheridan Memorial Hospital. He said that more than 70 percent of his hospital’s employees had been vaccinated without using an incentive or mandates.

Most health care workers around the country, especially those at large hospital systems, seem to be going along with vaccination requirements. That is true at Wyoming’s largest hospital, the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, according to Dr. Carol Solie, its chief medical officer.

All of the hospital’s roughly 1,500 workers and contractors must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1, with exemptions for religious and medical reasons. Dr. Solie said that more than 60 percent were already vaccinated, while “a very small number” had quit over the mandate, which was announced on July 20.

“If you tell a group of professionals that they have to do something to keep their job,” Dr. Solie said, “the majority are going to act on it.”

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