Three Sierra Vista Hospital board members—two Joint Powers Commissioners and one Governing Board member—raised alarm bells at the Sept. 15 Elephant Butte City Council meeting. They claimed Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s latest COVID-19 public health order imposing vaccination or testing requirements on hospital and health care workers will make it difficult to hire and to keep staff members, possibly causing the hospital to close.
In a phone call today with the Sun, SVH Human Resources Director Tim James said: “The hospital is proceeding with normal operations. We are not at all in danger of closing.”
He continued: “We lost a few employees [at the beginning of the pandemic], but there is not a steady bleed of employees about this [masking, vaccination and testing protocols required by state and federal health orders]. Our employee numbers are steady.”
“The [state’s] public health order was extended to Oct. 15 and will probably be extended again,” James noted. “We are trying to keep politics and religion out of the hospital. We discourage our employees from having political or religious discussions. We follow the state and CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] orders. We are not seeing a problem with staff following these orders.”
Since the latest state public health order was handed down by the governor on Aug. 17, the hospital has lost six employees who did not want to comply with the vaccination or testing requirements, James said today. Only one worked with patients.
Kathy Elverum, Elephant Butte’s representative on the Governing Board, briefed the Elephant Butte City Council on Wednesday about the public health’s order impact on the hospital. Elverum said the “unintended consequences” of the Aug. 17 order was a loss of clinicians, according to a roundup story about the council meeting written by Chuck Wentworth and published today in the print edition of the Sierra County Sentinel. Elverum said that the clinical staff has to work “double shifts,” in order to keep various operations open, such as “intensive care units,” the article reported.
The hospital has had no response to its traveling nurses’ ad offering $135 an hour, Eleverum is also reported to have said.
“Yes, some employees are picking up extra shifts,” HR Director James acknowledged to the Sun, “but that is not because of people having left. There is a shortage of staff across the country. We are just about completely covered.”
Concerning traveling nurses, James said: “We’ve always had to have traveling RNs. Pay for them has increased because of COVID. They make a lot of money traveling and we are competing nationally.”
The Elephant Butte City Council responded with alarm to Elverum’s misinformed Governing Board report.
Elephant Butte City Councilor Travis Atwell, who is also a JPC member, said: “Due to the governor’s unconstitutional mandates, we may want to start a class action.”
“I agree,” said Elephant Butte Mayor Pro Tem Kim Skinner, also a JPC member. “This is why we didn’t want vaccines to be required. There are a lot of people who hold strong beliefs.”
“This will, unfortunately, be the death of our hospital,” Atwell concluded.
The council instructed Elephant Butte Attorney Ben Young to research the viability of a class-action suit. Because the county is the fiscal agent for the Joint Powers Commission, which is the hospital’s owners board, Young was asked to confer with Sierra County Attorney Dave Pato. He will also contact the hospital’s attorney, David Johnson.
GOVERNING BOARD APPROVED POLICY COMPLYING WITH PUBLIC HEALTH ORDER
Despite having raised this alarm, Elverum was among those who unanimously passed a policy complying with the governor’s public health order at a special meeting of the hospital’s Governing Board held Sept. 9.
The public was not allowed to attend the meeting in person, but could call to listen in. Because the audio was so bad, none of the proceedings could be heard. The Sun’s sources of information about the Sept. 9 meeting are the minutes prepared by Jennifer Burns, an administrative assistant at the hospital, which were released on Sept. 14, and the responses to the Sun’s follow-up question-and-answer email written by Human Resources Director Tim James on Sept. 15.
James, Sheila Adams, the hospital’s interim chief executive officer and chief nursing officer and Hospital Attorney David Johnson drafted the policy, according to the meeting minutes.
“The purpose of the policy is to comply with the order and protect our employees, non-employees, patients and families of Sierra Vista Hospital from contracting or spreading COVID-19,” the minutes state.
The policy mirrors the governor’s Aug. 17 public health order in requiring all hospital staff to have a first shot or to be fully vaccinated by Aug. 27. A second shot is to be received within 40 days of the first shot.
Exemptions were to be submitted by Aug. 27. Medical and disability exemptions required documentation signed by a doctor or nurse practitioner or other qualifying medical staff. Religious exemptions required, as stated in the public health order, a “documented request regarding the manner in which the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine conflicts with the religious observance or practice or belief of the individual.”
If an exemption is attained, the staff member must then submit a weekly COVID-19 test to hospital administration, proving the absence of infection.
James told the Governing Board on Sept. 9 “no hospital in the state,” including Sierra Vista, had been able to comply with the Aug. 27 deadline.
The exemptions were still being processed as of Sept. 9, with 24 applications having been received by that date.
A testing schedule for Sierra Vista’s 186 employees—the total excludes contract workers—was being arranged, James said, according to the minutes, although the state order requires only staff with exemptions to be tested weekly.
Governing Board Chairperson Greg D’Amour said that testing for all staff is warranted because of the high number of cases in the community and because vaccinated persons can still transmit the virus.
Chief Nursing Officer Adams reported that COVID cases in Sierra County went “from three to 25 in one week.”
“All our COVID positive patients have been non-vaccinated,” Adams added.
“There are hospital beds available in New Mexico, the problem is there is not enough staff to care for the patients,” Adams concluded.
CURRENT DATA ON STAFF VACCINATIONS AND EXEMPTIONS
The number of vaccinated and exempted employees was not made available to the Governing Board on Sept. 9. James gave an update on those figures in his Sept. 15 email to the Sun, and the data he provided supports his assertion that the hospital is not “bleeding” employees.
The vast majority of hospital employees have been vaccinated. Ninety percent of employees with direct patient contact have received at least one shot; the figure for the entire staff is 86 percent.
“We consider every employee at Sierra Vista Hospital to be frontline workers,” James wrote. “We have a total of 126 staff with direct patient contact. 114 of those staff have been vaccinated. 12 have not been vaccinated and all 12 have approved exemptions.”
“We currently have a total of 194 regular staff and contractors employed at the hospital. 158 of those employees are fully vaccinated, 9 have received the first dose of the vaccine with the second dose to be administered within 40 days of the first dose.”
Employees who have been granted exemptions comprise slightly less than 14 percent of the total staff, including contractors.
“To protect the privacy of our employees,” James informed the Sun, “we will not specify whether exemptions are Religious or Medical. We have approved 26 exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccination.”
“We have one exemption still pending approval which will be approved prior to the employee going on shift,” James wrote. “If it is not approved by that time, the employee will not be allowed to work until the exemption is approved.
“We have had six staff members resign specifically due to the mandates in the Public Health Order,” James reported.
HAZARD PAY ALSO APPROVED
The Sun asked James why the Governing Board, after holding a closed session on Sept. 9, voted to give employees a raise. He provided the following clarification:
“This was not a ‘raise.’ That term is associated with a permanent pay adjustment. What was proposed and approved by the SVH Board of Directors was a temporary wage adjustment for hazard pay related to the current surge in the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hazard pay adjustment is for a defined time span from the pay period beginning Aug. 29 and stopping with the pay period ending Oct. 23.
“The amount of the wage adjustment was 15 percent across the board for all regular staff and 30 percent for the current three-member Administrative Team. Contract staff was not included in the pay increase since their pay is determined by contractual agreement. The temporary wage adjustment was given to regular staff as recognition of and compensation for the extraordinary circumstances imposed on our healthcare workers by the current surge in the pandemic.”