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Hospitals reconsider vaccine policies and prepare for federal mandate

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Patients hospitalized for treatment for COVID-19.

MADISON (WKOW) -- Health care workers are some of those getting sick from the current surge of the Delta variant, and that's making things difficult for hospitals trying to care for more patients. So now, many hospitals are reconsidering their vaccine policies in an effort to keep their workers healthy.

Mercyhealth, which operates a hospital in Janesville, previously didn't have any vaccine requirement. But on Friday, the health system announced a change to its policy. Workers have until October 15 to be fully vaccinated. If they choose not to get the shot, they'll have to wear a mask at all times, get tested weekly and pay a monthly fee of $60 to $265 dollars based on their salary.

"We really hope that all partners decide to get vaccinated, but as a health system, we have decided to give our partners a choice," Alen Brcic, Mercyhealth's vice president of people and culture, said.

Mercyhealth isn't the only health system re-evaluating its vaccine policy.

The Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative represents more than 40 Wisconsin hospitals, and the group's executive director, Tim Size, said deciding whether to require the vaccine is difficult choice with no easy answer.

"The challenge for local health care leaders is that they are between a rock and hard place – mandating vaccination and losing staff who are unlikely to be replaced given growing workforce shortages or losing staff from bed side care if they test positive with COVID," he said in a written statement to 27 News. "Either option hurts local health care and those who need care."

However, hospitals might not have the choice to not require vaccines for much longer.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced Thursday it was drafting a rule requiring vaccination for employees at all health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding.

The move is part of President Joe Biden's plan to curb the pandemic. However, unlike Biden's vaccine mandate for companies with at least 100 employees, the rule for health care workers does not have a weekly testing exemption.

Jennifer Behnke supports the new vaccine mandate. Behnke is the coordinator for the South Central Wisconsin Healthcare Emergency Readiness Coalition, which represents hospitals in the area. She said the mandate will prevent hospitals that do require the shot from losing employees to hospitals without a mandate.

"That actually kind of levels the playing field," she said. "If you think you're going to work in a hospital, suddenly this applies to everybody."

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CMS, said it will introduce the rule in October. Brcic said Mercyhealth will re-evaluate its plan if, and when, federal law changes.

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Caroline Dade

Weekend Evening Anchor/Reporter, 27 News

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