What’s going on with the vaccine mandates, injunctions, our veterans and the National Guard?

By Tim Engstrom

MINNEAPOLIS — An injunction from a U.S. district court judge in Louisiana on Tuesday, Nov. 30, halted a federal COVID vaccine mandate for most of the country’s health care workers. The mandates had said the workers must receive their first shot by Dec. 6 and be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4.

Many long-term care providers across Minnesota were worried about losing staff as a result of the mandates, and the Minnesota National Guard was prepared to come into facilities across the state to make sure people were cared for, particularly seniors.

The Minnesota National Guard has been training soldiers to serve as certified nursing assistants and temporary nursing assistants. Capt. Peter Froehle, officer in charge of the long-term-care training, said many of his soldiers stand ready to step into long-term care facilities should the call come.

Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Deputy Commissioner Doug Hughes said the Minnesota Veterans Homes has the ability to adjust staff and residents among the five locations should the mandates come down.

Like other nursing homes, the Minnesota Veterans Homes have lowered their population slightly to account for having a separate COVID area and for staffing shortages.

“It’s safe to say the long-term care shortage is more acute than acute care,” Hughes said.

Before COVID, the population was around 300 and now hovers around 270 and 280, a number dependent on staffing, he said.

If the mandate comes down, are there any facilities particularly affected?

“I believe there would be a shortage in every facility,” Hughes said.

Hughes noted that Fergus Falls and, to a lesser extent, Luverne have fewer vaccinated staff than the other three homes. Commissioner Larry Herke, in a report to Gov. Tim Walz in front of veteran service organizations on Friday, Dec. 3, reiterated that detail.

Froehle said the National Guard would come to facilities only as requested. A needs review is then determined. Once soldiers arrive, they remain until the need is over.

All soldiers on the mission must be vaccinated, Froehle said. He said about 210 have gone through the 14-day CNA training and about 100 have done the five-day TNA training. Including one who already have the training, there should be 400 ready for service by Friday, Dec. 3.

Jessica Hollie, who coordinates community nursing homes providing care for VA-qualified veterans in the region, said each long-term-care facility faces a different staffing situation in each community.

“Results have varied by facility,” she said.

She coordinates 58 contracted nursing homes and, before COVID, there were about 400 veterans in their care. Now there are 350 to 360.

Jeff Peterson, nurse manager for the Minneapolis VA’s Community Living Center, said if the mandate came down it likely would not impact the program.

The Minnesota VA Medical Center staff has a high rate of vaccination, said Brad Doboszenski, the public affairs officer. He said if there was a shortage, however, the local VA would go through the national VA, which likely would shuffle staff from other hospitals. Resorting to the National Guard would be highly likely there.

The main way the VA in Minneapolis would be impacted, he said, is when staff members are also Guard members, and they get called out to serve elsewhere, trading one care provider to serve at another.

The injunction, written by Judge Terry A. Doughty of the U.S. District Court for Western Louisiana, expanded an order issued Monday in Missouri that applied only to 10 states.

According to the New York Times, Doughty wrote: “There is no question that mandating a vaccine to 10.3 million health care workers is something that should be done by Congress, not a government agency.” The judge added: “It is not clear that even an act of Congress mandating a vaccine would be constitutional.”

The ruling quoted the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in saying 2.4 million health care workers are unvaccinated.

News outlets say the two rulings — the one in Missouri and the one in Louisiana — are likely to be appealed.