Rural hospital warns Sen. Smith over “dire” impact of Biden vaccine mandate

Minnesota DFL Senator Tina Smith’s tour of the Litchfield hospital recently turned out to be anything but your customary meet and greet with the locals. The photo op became a policy op for the administrator of the central Minnesota community’s hospital system, according to the Litchfield Independent Review.

Federal funds made a big difference for Meeker Memorial Hospital and Clinics as it navigated the financial challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But an impending vaccine mandate threatens the provider’s ability to continue to care for the community.

That was the message MMHC administration and staff members delivered to Sen. Tina Smith when she visited the hospital Friday.

“It’s a tough subject,” MMHC Chief Executive Officer Kurt Waldbillig said, “especially with health care workers that, for 18 months, put their life on the line without a vaccine. And mandates doesn’t always sit well when it comes to anything. As a facility and as a CEO, I believe in the vaccine, I think it’s a great tool to keep people safe, but it’s been trying. It’s been politicized so much.”

Vaccination rates run high among the staff at the small health care system’s two clinics, including all doctors. But the crunch comes with the reluctance on the part of many nurses at the hospital.

Smith supports Biden’s mandate that requires vaccination of staff at all health care facilities accepting patients on Medicare and Medicaid, a reality that would decimate staff and services at the Litchfield hospital.

A federal mandate requiring vaccinations could have a dire effect on Meeker Memorial Hospital and Clinics, according to Clinic Administrator Jayne Holmgren.

“You talk about the workforce,” Holmgren said in response to a Smith question regarding vaccination rate. “Only having 51 or 55 percent vaccinated … when this (mandate) does go into play, that’s 40-some percent that are going to be leaving our workforce. That’s going to cripple us, because there’s nobody out there to hire.”

Holmgren recounted how she had two people resign their positions in one hour, “and the reason for leaving is, they’re stressed. And now we add this on top of it. The clinic right now is holding just barely on with staffing, trying to get some new people, but it’s a struggle. And it all trickles down.”

It’s not clear whether Smith knew what she was getting for when her staff put the Litchfield hospital on her itinerary. At one point the junior senator steered the discussion more in the direction of the root causes of why so many oppose the federal government’s mandate, rather than its potential impact.

“I really hear what you’re saying,” she said. “I think this question of why people are resistant to vaccines is a complicated question. And it isn’t explained by just one thing, every time. When you take that kind of simplistic approach, you miss it. What this conversation is really helping me to understand, and I’ve talked about this with other folks, too, (and) we have to try to find ways of getting politics out of every damn thing that we do, every single day.”

No doubt many in Litchfield would agree a good starting point would be to rescind the vaccine mandate for health care workers. But that would require Smith and her colleagues who support mandates to do something about getting politics out of every thing that we do rather than just talk about it.