DICKINSON, N.D. -- President Joe Biden announced Aug. 18 that staff members at nursing homes would now be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or those facilities would risk losing their Medicare and Medicaid funding.
The federal announcement received both praise and condemnation from medical professionals and media, and appears to have caused a ripple effect throughout North Dakota where, according to the CDC's COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration data tracker, the state ranks 42nd in the nation with more than 52% of the population remaining unvaccinated.
In a statement released by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, the new mandate “unfairly targets long-term care staff.”
“The government should not single out one provider group for mandatory vaccinations. Vaccination mandates for health care personnel should be applied to all health care settings. Without this, nursing homes face a disastrous workforce challenge,” Mark Parkinson, president and CEO with American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, said.
According to a study released in May by the U.S. Health and Human Services and the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis, North Dakota ranks among the top states suffering from some of the most severe nursing shortages — ranking 9th in the nation.
A house divided
In Dickinson, more than 250 medical professionals and community supporters gathered on Thursday, Aug. 26, to protest the federal and private vaccination mandates as conditions of employment. Like many nurses across the country, the protestors said they wanted to show their solidarity in signing a petition calling for personal medical freedom against coercion — saying they will quit, if required to take the vaccine.
The nursing shortages and growing frustrations with personal health mandates, coupled with the newly implemented federal mandates are raising serious questions for public health in southwest North Dakota, the state and the nation according to the protestors.
“Which poses a more serious risk to the state’s medical facilities? Unvaccinated staff for a virus with a 99% survival rate for those under 70 years old and 95% for those above 70 years old, or having no staff because they quit and went into private nursing?” asked Kim Crone of Dickinson. “I have family and friends that are in the healthcare system throughout the United States, and to be required to have the vaccine in order to keep your job is not right, it’s not American. If you lose your nurses you have no health care system. You have doctors, but they are not the ones doing the back-breaking work needed to keep the hospitals running.”
Speaking with The Press, multiple nurses attending the protest in Dickinson requested anonymity on the sincere belief that their vocal opposition to the mandate could result in termination and/or ostracization in an industry that is increasingly controlled by a shrinking number of entities.
“Businesses and government are overreaching with their mandates for vaccines, and the coercion and discrimination that is happening across the country is appalling. I’m taking a big risk by even being out here voicing my right to medical autonomy in present society’s thirst for ‘cancel culture,’” Natalie, a nurse of nine years said. “Our community will be negatively impacted by these mandates because I can 100% assure you that it is going to cause a decrease in workforce. Discrimination for personal health decisions, moral and religious beliefs is unethical, and as health care workers we are feeling increasingly underappreciated after sticking with our jobs over the last two years only to face losing our jobs for not complying with what has always been a personal choice in vaccinations.”
Among the hundreds protesting in front of CHI St. Alexius Health Dickinson, many nurses held signs reading, “From Hero to Zero.” Their concerns signal a changing paradigm of society’s view of nurses and personal medical freedoms amidst labels of “anti-vaxxer,” “anti-science,” and “right wing conspiracy theorist.”
“As a nurse, who am I to undermine the people in this community, who aren’t in health care, who have spent a lot of time looking up the body's immune system, different types of immunity, the vaccine’s ingredients and have made a conscience decision for themselves that they don’t want to get this right now,” Morgan, a nurse of five years, said. “The discrimination is becoming very real. Some people were too scared to even show up today because they don’t want people to treat them differently for their health freedom choices.”
In addition to the federal mandates on vaccination for nurses and staff at nursing homes, many medical facilities across the country have moved forward with their own mandates for employees. CHI St. Alexius Health announced this month that all employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19, as a condition of employment.
"People look at us as health care professionals, but they don’t realize that at the time we are getting the vaccine we are not just health care professionals, we are patients too."
- Brooke, a veteran nurse
On Thursday, CHI responded to the growing number of protestors on the street directly in front of the hospital with increased security staffing patrolling the parking lot and actively restricting participating protestors from the hospital’s nearly empty parking lots.
“If you’re not here for an appointment, you can leave,” security guards told protestors attempting to park on the hospital’s private property.
“People look at us as health care professionals, but they don’t realize that at the time we are getting the vaccine we are not just health care professionals, we are patients too. Whenever you are getting a vaccine or procedure that has invasive elements to the body, you have to provide informed consent. The problem with the mandate is the fact that when people are saying, ‘I don’t want it, but guess I have to get this vaccine because my job requires it,’ that to me is not informed consent,” Brooke, a nurse of many years, said. “It’s the definition of coercion. It’s no longer a choice because you are being threatened with your very livelihood.”
Another significant surge?
Not all in the profession agree with some of the assertions made by those at the protest, however, with many collective nursing bodies calling on their members to receive the vaccination.
The North Dakota Medical Association, North Dakota Hospital Association, North Dakota Long Term Care Association and North Dakota Nurses Association released a statement urging vaccinations for all.
“Data shows that COVID-19 vaccines are the number one defense mechanism to prevent severe COVID-19 illness, hospitalization, and death. And one simple prevention measure – getting vaccinated – could make a difference by reducing the burden placed on our health care systems,” a press release statement said. “Vaccines are by far the safer approach compared to the risks of contracting the disease. Time is of the essence and here is why: Hospitalizations have more than doubled in the last month and infection rates among long term care centers are on the rise. If this continues, health care staffing and bed availability could hamper the ability to care for patients – your loved ones, friends, and family - through another significant surge.”
The Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, Aug. 23. Prior to the approval, the two-shot mRNA vaccine was being distributed under "emergency use authorization," a regulatory standard that is different from "full" approval.
Full approval of the vaccine is being touted by industry professionals as a huge milestone, as it remains the first and only COVID-19 vaccine to be fully approved by the FDA in the United States.
Despite the seemingly united front of statewide medical professional bodies advocating for vaccinations, concern grows among nurses surrounding mandates requiring the jab as a condition of employment — the consequences of which industry officials say could have a negative effect on an already struggling nursing industry.
According to the nurses at the protest, more than half of the staff at the local hospitals and nursing homes have applied for medical and religious exemptions — though nurses who spoke with The Press say they had yet to hear a response on their requests.
In response to a request for an interview, CHI St. Alexius Health Dickinson’s Interim President DeeAnna Opstedahl, provided the following statement.
"We care deeply about our community, our patients and our employees. The COVID vaccine has been proven to protect communities from severe illness and hospitalizations caused by COVID-19. As a requirement of employment we are asking that our employees get vaccinated for COVID-19, just as we also require employees to be vaccinated for influenza,” Opstedahl said. “We do have a process in place for employees to file for a medical or religious exemption from this requirement, and those requests are being reviewed."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Assertions made by protestors regarding percentages of nurses who have requested exemptions for the vaccine represent the views of those attending the protest and making the statement. These statistics could not be confirmed as of this article as attempts by The Press to contact CHI St. Alexius’ Public Relations office, the Marketing and Public Relations Director and the Manager of Mission and Ancillary Services for interviews in follow-up to their statement went unresponsive.