While the vast majority of Washington hospital workers have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, rural hospitals are seeing much lower immunization rates among workers, according to a new survey of hospitals and health systems.
As of Monday morning, 88% of hospital workers had showed proof of vaccination, the Washington State Hospital Association reported. The results include data from 94% of the state’s hospitals, collected after Oct. 4. The survey includes all staff members of Washington state hospitals — both inpatient and outpatient services — and doesn’t cover independent physicians’ offices, dentist offices, military hospitals and a few other types of health care facilities.
All health care workers must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face “nondisciplinary dismissal” for failure to meet job requirements, Gov. Jay Inslee announced in August.
The remaining 12% of hospital workers include those who are partially vaccinated, have an approved exemption and accommodation, have applied or plan to apply for an exemption that hasn’t yet been reviewed, have not yet provided vaccination verification, or are choosing not to be vaccinated.
Further information about the specific breakdown wasn’t immediately available Monday morning, though the hospital association said it believes 2% to 5% of hospital staff — between 3,000 and 7,500 employees — could leave the workforce because of the mandate.
Rural Washington hospitals will likely see the biggest impact, WSHA CEO Cassie Sauer said in a Monday news briefing.
Newport Hospital & Health Services in Eastern Washington near the Idaho border, for example, could lose up to 10% of its staff, including about 50% of its 15-person rehabilitation services department, chief operating officer Christina Wager said at the briefing.
In Seattle, most large resource hospitals have fairly high vaccination rates, including UW Medicine, which reported Monday that 98% of its medical staff is fully vaccinated.
Seven-day case rates are significantly higher in counties east of the Cascades, according to the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 data dashboard. Among those with the highest infection rates include Ferry, Garfield, Columbia, Grant and Pend Orielle counties, whose rates range from 360 to 582 infections per 100,000 people as of last week. In comparison, King County most recently reported 92 cases per 100,000 people.
About 400 UW Medicine employees applied for an exemption from the mandate, with about a third of them granted, chief medical officer Dr. Tim Dellit said during the briefing.
If workers have started the vaccination process but won’t be fully immunized by the deadline, hospitals are likely to put them on unpaid leave, rather than immediately firing them, Sauer said. At many health care facilities, employees will be able to use vacation time while they wait to be fully vaccinated, she added.
Final vaccination data for the state won’t be available until early to mid-November, the hospital association said.
“Washington hospitals continue to urge their staff to get vital COVID-19 vaccines,” Sauer said in a statement. “We are pleased that most hospitals and health systems have achieved a high rate of vaccination, which will allow patients to continue to access lifesaving care across Washington State.”
The recent survey also asked hospitals to share details about the anticipated impact of staff losses on patient care. In response, several hospitals said they’ll need to reduce or consolidate some services — such as continued delays for non-urgent procedures and longer waits for outpatient appointments.
Cases and hospitalizations are continuing to decrease throughout the state, though their rates of decline has “slowed considerably,” Sauer said Monday.
“There’s a concern that things may be flattening out at a really high level,” she added.
Since passing the peak of the recent delta wave, Sauer said the state was generally seeing about a 10% decrease in new COVID-19 cases per week. This past week, however, the state recorded about a 2% decrease in new infections.
Additionally, Washington’s death rate remains fairly high with about 15 to 20 deaths per day, she said.
Hospitals, meanwhile, continue to delay various types of care, including cancer procedures or transplant surgeries, to manage their patient load and staffing shortages.
“It’s likely to get worse,” Sauer said. “If COVID cases keep falling, that eases some pressure on hospitals as well. … But we will see some more delays through the vaccine requirement.”