Vaccine mandate could affect care of veterans at St. Cloud VA hospital

St. Cloud VA Medical Center

St. Cloud’s health care system could lose about fifth of staff

By Tim Engstrom
The Minnesota Legionnaire

ST. CLOUD — As of July 11, there were 390 union employees in the St. Cloud VA Health Care System who have requested religious or medical exemptions from the COVID-19 federal mandate.

That’s about 23 percent of the 1,681 bargaining-unit employees. The numbers come from American Federation of Government Employees Local 390, the union that represents St. Cloud VA medical staff.

If the mandates of “get a shot or be fired” went down right now, it would wipe out about one-fifth of the St. Cloud VA workers, severely curtailing the ability of the system to provide for the health care of veterans.

Local 390 President Andrea Matthews pointed out St. Cloud has the highest unvaccinated population of all VA systems in the country.

“I am trying really hard to keep this from being politicized because I don’t want to go there with it,” she said. “These are frontline workers that, a year or two ago, were our heroes. They stayed at work when even their families couldn’t come see the patients.”

She said her concerns are care for veterans and fair treatment for the employees.

VISN-23, the Veterans Health Administration’s care network for the Upper Midwest, oversees the VA hospitals including St. Cloud.

“The ongoing safety of our operations is our focal point each day,” said VISN-23 Public Affairs Officer Ron Woolery. “We continuously assess staffing and adjust our operations as required to ensure patient and employee safety and timely access to care for veterans.”

He noted St. Cloud and other VA facilities are acting under a VHA directive dated Jan. 27, 2022, and it requires all VHA health care personnel to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or obtain an approved accommodation for medical, pregnancy or religious reasons.

“Compliance with this directive is a requirement,” he said.

He provided The Minnesota Legionnaire with slightly different numbers. He said about 82 percent of St. Cloud VA Health Care System staff are compliant, meaning 18 percent aren’t. His figures would include non-union staff, such as administrators, while Matthews only illustrated union workers.

Either way, it still is about one in five.

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, in late July 2021, announced vaccines would be mandatory for Title 38 employees, which covers physicians, nurses, dentists, chiropractors, optometrists and many other medical workers.

“We’re mandating vaccines for Title 38 employees because it’s the best way to keep veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country,” McDonough said at the time. “Whenever a veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19. With this mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise.”

Matthews said the VA in St. Cloud already is short-staffed, and losing even more workers will only make things harder on the veterans who need care and on the remaining staff and administration.

An unvaccinated worker, she said, is given two options — get the vaccine or apply for accommodation, where human resources staff attempts to find the person a position outside of the current job. If there isn’t something available, the employee faces removal.

If worker chooses nothing, the person would get a written counseling by a supervisor, a 14-day suspension, then let go. She noted that nobody at St. Cloud has been suspended or let go. The problem, she said, is with Washington.

“This doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t make sense because they are saying I’m not safe enough to work here anymore but you are going to keep me here long enough to do the job in the meantime,” she said.

Vaccine mandates for many American workers have been overruled by federal judges, but those rulings haven’t applied to VHA health care personnel.

Matthews, who is vaccinated, said many have quit to work for other medical providers in the St. Cloud area, where there is a strong demand.

The vaccine deadline at first was November of last year. Then it was February, and by then many had left before it was pushed back again.

Another aspect she finds troublesome is having to share medical information — a vaccine status — with an employer. It rubs up against many medical privacy regulations, she said.

The virus has changed since last year, and the landscape is different than when the mandate came out, she said.

“The science they are using to push this mandate is now outdated and now it just looks discriminatory.”

Woolery said all staff adhere to protective guidance and conduct their tasks safely and effectively. Those who are unvaccinated are required to wear N95 masks and are tested weekly.

“We remain focused on delivering safe, quality care to veterans, retaining staff as able, and continuing recruitment actions,” he said.