OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s veterans affairs agency is facing questions from a state lawmaker after it published job advertisements for nurses touting the fact that the state doesn’t require its employees to get coronavirus vaccinations.
The ads on a state jobs website prominently note the lack of vaccination requirements for state employees, right after mentioning a $5,000 hiring bonus. In a separate mail advertisement, the state lists “No mandated COVID-19 vaccination” as one of the “many great benefits” of its nursing jobs.
State Sen. Carol Blood, of Bellevue, said she inquired about the ad after constituents with loved ones in Nebraska’s state-run veterans homes brought it to her attention. Blood said she understands that the state faces a chronic nursing shortage but was concerned because many veterans’ home residents are elderly and sick.
“It almost appears as if we saw this as an opportunity to scoop up people who don’t want to be vaccinated,” said Blood, whose district includes the Eastern Nebraska Veterans’ Home. “I don’t know if that’s a really good strategy.”
The listings were posted shortly before Nebraska’s largest hospital systems jointly announced that they will require their employees to get vaccinated.
The coalition includes Boys Town, Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals, Bryan Health, Methodist, CHI Health, Midwest Surgical Hospital, Children’s Hospital & Medical Center and Nebraska Medicine. Several have reopened wards to cope with a surge in largely unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.
“I think we’re approaching a public health crisis,” said Dr. John Trapp, chief medical officer at Bryan Health.
The ads also come less than a year after the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs’ director, John Hilgert, disclosed his own struggles with the virus and implored people to take it seriously. Hilgert’s boss, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, has repeatedly urged residents to get vaccinated but refused to require it statewide or to require masks, despite pleas from some public health officials.
In a statement, a department spokesman pointed to virus safety measures that are in place in all four of its facilities, including mandatory weekly testing for vaccinated workers and testing every other day for those who aren’t.
Masks are also required for staff when they’re working with residents, visitors or other employees. Face shields or eye protection is required if county transmission rates are considered “high,” with 100 or more new cases per 100,000 people in a week or 10% positive tests in that time window.
Additionally, unvaccinated staff members are required to quarantine if they’re exposed to the virus. All workers must also complete a screening and temperature reading any time they enter a facility.
“Serving the veterans and their family members in our homes is our mission, and we take their safety and care very seriously,” said department spokesman Holden Armstrong.
Blood, a potential Democratic candidate for governor who has focused heavily on veterans’ issues in the Legislature, said she’d like to see the state fill nursing jobs in other ways, such as raising pay or possibly offering assistance to medical professionals with student loan debt.
“I’m deeply concerned about the message this gives to our veterans’ families,” she said. “They want to believe their loved ones are in a safe place, and I don’t think they feel that way right now.”
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