CCH implements changes ahead of expected COVID-19 surge

(File photo/Campbell County Health)

Hospital prepares for pending healthcare worker vaccine mandate and projected staffing shortage

By RJ Morgan and Ryan Lewallen

The coming year could look a bit different for Campbell County’s main healthcare provider with a pending healthcare worker vaccine mandate, a projected staffing shortage, and a surge of new COVID-19 variant cases looming on the horizon.

Mandate

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 13 that the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has the authority to require healthcare workers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and Campbell County Health (CCH) will adhere to all changes and mandates once they are in place, according to CCH Community Relations Manager Karen Clarke.

When that could be, however, is anyone’s guess.

“There are no dates in place at this time,” Clarke said Tuesday afternoon. “We will wait until we have more information and direction from the CMS and then go from there. Until then, we do not have any dates or times in place.”

The hospital had originally implemented a deadline that required all their staff to at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 6, 2021, but it was abandoned while CCH waited to see the Supreme Court ruling.

In its ruling, the court stated that the rule granting CMS the authority to require healthcare workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine fit neatly within the language of the statute and that ensuring providers take steps to avoid transmitting a dangerous virus to their patients is consistent with the fundamental principle of the medical profession to do no harm.

Since implementing their own deadline, CCH has reportedly seen a jump in staff vaccination rates with around 60 percent receiving at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, per Clarke.

Staff is allowed to opt-out of the vaccine with CCH establishing protocols for employees to claim medical or religious exemptions while developing a COVID-19 testing process for all its unvaccinated staff.

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Once the mandate comes down from CMS, however, it will apply to all employees, medical staff, board members, students, consultants, volunteers, vendors, and contracted employees.

Procedure

With the threat of a surge in new COVID-19 cases expected this month with the newly identified Omicron variant poised to sweep across the region, CCH has elected to implement some changes to their daily protocols.

The Omicron variant is highly contagious and spreads easily and, though the virus appears milder for individuals not at risk for severe illness, the hospital is still taking precautions.

“Our goal is to continue to provide healthcare for the community in our hospital, clinics, Walk-in Clinic, Emergency Department, and Legacy Living,” Clarke said.

Visitation and outpatient guidelines went to a Level Red on Monday, Jan. 17, which only occurs when the community COVID-19 positivity rate exceeds a 30 percent average, per Clarke.

During Level Red, inpatient visitation is not allowed, though exceptions may be made for pediatric patients, end of life, patients with altered mental status, and patients with physical or developmental delays, per CCH.

One support person may be admitted for patients in the Maternal Child Unit, CCH says, and patients at end-of-life may have visitors that are screened and wear a mask as well as additional personal protective equipment as necessary.

Medical visits will be virtual, CCH continues, with wellness visits, follow-up appointments, and medication refills to be conducted via telemedicine to reduce the number of patients physically at the CCH facility, thereby reducing the likelihood for COVID-19 transmission between patients.

“We’re taking a proactive approach at this point to stay ahead of a possible surge because of the (Omicron) variant, we’re making changes now.,” Clarke said. “It protects our staff, and it protects our patients.”

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The Wright Clinic will continue to see patients in person, but patients will need to call ahead when they arrive and be escorted back for their appointments to limit waiting room exposure.

Additionally, the Legacy Living and Rehabilitation Center (LLRC) will continue to allow visitation, though all visitors will need to be screened and will be required to wear a mask. Children under the age of 12 will not be allowed to visit, however, exceptions may be made in end-of-life situations.

Staffing shortage

There is currently no staffing shortage at CCH due to COVID-19, though the organization continues to prepare for a potential increase in positive cases as Omicron advances among the ranks of its employees, according to a Jan. 14 statement.

“This causes significant strain on staffing in the hospital, clinics, and the (LLRC),” the statement says. “Our goal is to continue to provide healthcare for the community.”

Healthcare staffing shortages are nothing new; the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that industry employment across the nation was down at the end of 2020 by 450,000, according to reporting by WyoFile, but the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic is turning a healthcare problem into a crisis.

At least 12 hospitals in recent months have reported critical staffing shortages to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as tens of thousands of traveling nurse positions remain vacant across the U.S., according to the Casper Star-Tribune.

The staffing challenges reached a point near the end of 2021 that spurred Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon to act by deploying federal funds to provide relief and support for Wyoming healthcare facilities as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surged.

“Wyoming’s healthcare system and healthcare workers, in every community, are feeling the strain of this surge,” Gordon said in September 2021. We need to recognize our healthcare workers’ commitment to caring for our neighbors during the pandemic. These are very stressful times for all of us, but particularly those in the healthcare industry. This is a means to thank them and to try and make sure we can keep them on the job.”

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At the time, Gordon allocated $20 million for healthcare facilities to use on a discretionary basis to stabilize their staffing levels and made an additional $10 million available to privately-owned hospitals in Wyoming and long-term care facilities to recruit traveling medical staff through the Wyoming Hospital Association.

In September 2021, COVID-19 hospitalizations were reported at 230 patients. As of Jan. 13, the number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 was at 101, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.