By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The Evers administration is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring in “medical reserve teams” to assist short-staffed hospitals statewide amid rising COVID-related hospitalizations.
Gov. Tony Evers and Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake insist the worker shortage has little to do with strict COVID vaccine mandates. Health care professionals who have quit or have been fired for just saying no to compulsory COVID-19 shots tell a different story.
“They are being intentionally misleading,” said David Anderson, a registered nurse at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse for nearly a decade. Well, at least up until early November, when administration showed him the door because he refused to get the shot.
Anderson is not alone. He and other health care professionals tell Empower Wisconsin that hundreds of Gundersen staff have gotten out or were forced out since the health care system issued its ultimatum in August that employees who refused to get vaccinated would lose their jobs come Nov. 1. Many of those departures were the direct result of the mandate, said Anderson, also a member of the Coulee Region Healthcare Workers Against COVID Vaccine Mandates.
Officials from Gundersen Health System did not return Empower Wisconsin’s requests for comment. But more than a week after Gundersen’s mandate went into effect, administrators reported that less than 1 percent of employees had been fired or left their jobs.
Anderson said those reported numbers don’t add up.
“(Gundersen’s statement) might have been true on paper, but hundreds have left over the past few months. Not all of them because of the mandate, but for a lot of them it was,” Anderson said. “They’re saying the staffing crisis has nothing to do with the mandate. It certainly does.”
Heroes to zeroes
Andrea Babinsky, a Gundersen bedside nurse for 12 years, was fired on Nov. 16. She, like Anderson, has been blacklisted from working for the health care system again.
What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, during a spike in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths, nurses like Babinsky were being hailed as heroes. Now they’re treated like social pariahs.
“It feels a lot like a betrayal, to be honest. A year ago I was floating in a COVID unit all the time. It was a crazy situation. There was staffing chaos. Everyone was dealing with it,” Babinsky said. “And now, just because we decide for personal or medical reasons we do not want to get the vaccine we’re thrown out like garbage.”
Of course, last year at this time, President-elect Joe Biden was telling the nation that the newly released COVID vaccination shouldn’t be mandatory.
“I wouldn’t demand it be mandatory,” he said.
In September Biden announced sweeping vax mandates for private employers. He has already put the hammer down for federal workers and contractors.
While courts have temporarily stopped the federal mandates, many health care systems have yet to relent.
The unvaccinated health care worker today, according to the hospitals and clinics where they have long worked, are suddenly a danger to their patients.
“Last year at this time my husband and kids had COVID. I was a danger being exposed every day, but they told us to continue to report to duty. They don’t care if you’re a danger to the patient,” Babinsky said. She believes the Biden administration has given health care providers their marching orders — backed by generous taxpayer-funded aid.
‘Could kill you’
When asked this week about the exodus of health care workers, Timberlake said the Department of Health Services has not heard of significant staff departures from Wisconsin’s health systems. Evers’ health czar stuck to the script.
“We know that requirements work to encourage vaccination and we know that vaccination is the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. If you can imagine yourself as an immunocompromised patient coming into a healthcare setting for necessary treatment, you will want the care team to be well-protected from an illness that could make you very sick or potentially could kill you,” she said.
How about coming into a healthcare setting to find no nurses or doctors to treat you because the hospital couldn’t scrape together enough staff for a shift? Or a hospital where so many support staff members had quit or were fired that days’ worth of hospital laundry piled up (to the point it was rotten and had to be burned)? Or idle hospital rooms and empty beds due to a dearth of cleaning staff. Anderson, Babinsky and other health care professionals tell Empower Wisconsin those are very real problems facing health care facilities today, and the coercive mandates are a big reason why.
Babinsky said recently Gundersen hospital in La Crosse had capped COVID patients at 40. Last year at this time, it was serving 70. That has everything to do with staffing.
Very real impacts
The Evers administration and their health care partners may shrug off the impact of the mandates they support, but hospitals raised alarms about the potential negative impacts months ago.
“As a practical matter, this policy may result in exacerbating the severe workforce shortage problems that currently exist,” American Hospital Association President and CEO Rick Pollack said in a Sept. 9 statement.
Staff shortages hit smaller, rural hospitals harder.
Ezekiel J. Emanuel, M.D., vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and a former White House health policy adviser, told Fierce Healthcare that the first wave of departures was small, “an acceptable loss for workforce-wide coverage.” He claimed health care providers have retained over 99 percent of their workforce.
But those numbers don’t seem to square with the kind of workforce shortages that now necessitate FEMA assistance.
The consequences are immediate.
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin ordered its staff to be vaccinated by Nov. 15. Sources say Children’s Milwaukee hospital already was feeling the loss of employees that fired or quit because of the mandate when, on Nov. 21, ambulances and private vehicles brought in dozens of children injured when a 39-year-old Milwaukee man in an SUV plowed into Waukesha’s annual Christmas parade.
Anderson said a lot of good health care professionals are out of jobs because they stood up for core values, particularly informed consent.
“I am worried about my future,” Anderson said. “There is a lot of discomfort with that uncertainty. That’s why these mandates are so detestable; they make someone take medication they don’t want to. That’s coercion and it’s just wrong.”