A line of people lined Sixth Avenue in front of Stillwater Medical Center Friday and Saturday, holding signs protesting COVID-19 vaccine mandates for people who work at the hospital and other medical facilities.
SMC staff have been notified they will be considered to have “self-terminated” if they don’t get vaccinated by Dec. 5 and they will not be eligible to receive unemployment, protest organizer Caroline Swink told the News Press.
She doesn’t want to lose her job and says SMC is the best employer she has ever worked for, the best job she’s ever had.
Swink, an R.N. with 25 years on the job, said she doesn’t personally trust the vaccines.
She doesn’t blame the hospital administration for what’s happening, instead looking at the mandate as an example of federal overreach. Some of her objection is political, she said. But she also has concerns about safety.
“You shouldn’t be required to put something like that in your body,” Swink said. “… It should be our choice.”
SMC Director of Public Relations Shyla Eggers confirmed the hospital has no choice if it doesn’t want to lose federal funding from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The requirement is part of an Intermediate Final Ruling published by CMS in the Federal Register on Nov. 5.
The agency said it believes the mandate will, “contribute to a reduction in the spread of and resulting morbidity and mortality from the disease, positive steps towards health equity, and an improvement in the numbers of health care staff who are healthy and able to perform their professional responsibilities.”
CMS provides a majority of Stillwater Medical’s operating revenue – 60% – and the hospital would not be able to keep its doors open without those funds, she said.
“Our hands are tied,” Eggers wrote in a text message.
Hillcrest Healthcare, which operates Hillcrest Cushing hospital, is under the same pressure.
“Providers are also required to have processes in place to track compliance with the new regulations," Communications Manager Rachel Weaver Smith wrote in an email. "Employees are able to request a medical or religious exemption in accordance with the policy. Like other health systems around the country, we are closely monitoring developments around the mandate while working swiftly to ensure compliance in a timely manner.”
About 400 of Stillwater Medical’s 1,800 system-wide employees have yet to be vaccinated, Eggers said Monday. Department heads are working on contingency plans in case they lose staff.
Medical administrators hope it doesn’t come to that, even as they and public health officials continue to encourage vaccination as the best way to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death.
Not all employees affected by the mandate provide patient care, she said. There are many who don’t have direct contact with patients.
The situation could still be very fluid, Eggers said. SMC put a process in place beginning Monday for staff to apply for medical or sincerely-held religious exemptions.
“We understand and sympathize that there is a lot of scariness going on in the world,” Eggers said. "We don’t want them to think we don’t want them in our facility. Many of them have worked with us for years.”