By Mark Craddock
WALSENBURG — The Spanish Peaks Regional Health Center announced today, July 29, a new policy requiring COVID-19 vaccines for all employees of SPRHC, the Spanish Peaks Veterans Community Living Center, and all other entities within the organization.
The mandate will take effect Oct. 1, 2021. By that date, all employees must be fully vaccinated, according to a SPRHC press release.
“(Unvaccinated employees) will no longer be able to work for our organization after Oct. 1,” SPRHC CEO Kay Whitley said Thursday. “It would be termination, primarily, but it will be based on circumstances. If there are reasons for an employee not to get vaccinated, we’re not cold-hearted people.”
Whitley said she announced the vaccination mandate to SPRHC managers on Wednesday and made an announcement to all employees Thursday afternoon.
She said those seeking a declination for medical or spiritual reasons will be provided with paperwork to be filled out by their health provider or spiritual leader.
Whitley said that about 72% of the more than 300 members of the SPRHC staff have been vaccinated, meaning Thursday’s decision will impact about 80-90 employees.
Currently, the facility does routine COVID-19 testing of Veterans Community Living Center staff, based on guidelines set forth by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and VA. Whitley said all staff wear facemasks, with unvaccinated employees required to wear more-protective N95 masks.
Based on new VA requirements released last Friday, she said all unvaccinated employees will be tested for COVID-19 when they come in the door before they start their shift.
“This is not a decision we take lightly, nor was it made easily,” Whitley said. “As an organization centered around protecting the health of our community, we simply must take every reasonable step to prevent transmission of COVID-19 within our facilities, and that includes mandatory COVID-19 vaccination of all employees.”
This makes SPRHC the first medical facility in the area to impose a vaccination mandate, but it follows on the heels of similar moves by at least four large hospital systems across the state.
Banner Health, which operates hospitals in Greely, Fort Collins Sterling and Brush, announced vaccination mandates last week. On Wednesday, July 28, UC Health, which maintains more than 50 clinics as well as Poudre Valley Hospital, Medical Center of the Rockies, University of Colorado Hospital, and Memorial Hospital Central and Memorial Hospital North in Colorado Springs, announced they will require employees to be vaccinated this fall.
Denver Health announced a similar mandate the same day for employees of its network of hospitals and clinics.
And the Department of Veterans Affairs announced earlier this week that it will require its frontline health care workers to be vaccinated.
Other hospitals in the region have not yet imposed a vaccination mandate, but are considering it.
John Tucker, CEO of Trinidad’s Mount San Rafael Hospital said some 80% of its employees are fully vaccinated. Currently, unvaccinated employees there must wear masks and get tested for COVID-19 weekly. He said the hospital is now requiring all employees to wear face masks, in light of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. Local public health officials announced this week that Las Animas County saw 85 new COVID-19 cases in the past month, more cases than it saw in total between April and October of 2020.
He said a vaccination mandate has not been imposed but is being considered in light of the rising case counts and the trends among other health care providers.
Likewise, Miners Colfax Medical Center in Raton has not mandated vaccinations among its staff, but administrators are paying close attention to the trends.
“The vaccine is highly encouraged, of course, but it’s not required, it’s not mandated at this time,” Miners Colfax CEO Bo Beames said. “We are watching closely what’s happening within our state and within our region.”
At SPRHC, Whitley said the decision to impose a vaccination mandate was largely informed by the Veterans Administration’s requirements for all front-line healthcare workers. But there was a reason SPRHC took it a step further.
“Ours is not just health care workers, it’s all our employees,” Whitley said. “Because we all touch our patients’ and our residents’ lives in one way or another.”