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Concerns raised about unvaccinated Providence hospital workers

Some patients and employees are raising concerns about Providence Medford Medical Center allowing unvaccinated hospital workers to take care of patients. File photo
Asante requires caregivers to be vaccinated against COVID-19

When he checked in as a patient at Providence Medford Medical Center, Martin didn’t know the hospital was allowing unvaccinated nurses to take care of people.

To protect his identity, the Medford resident asked that his last name not be used or his medical condition detailed.

Martin started asking Providence workers about their vaccination status. Some said they were vaccinated, some said they weren’t — and many said that information was none of his business.

Martin said workers were touching him to check his vital signs, start an IV and perform other tasks. He kept asking unvaccinated workers not to touch him or be in the same room with him.

Martin eventually felt so unsafe that he got himself discharged from the hospital and left despite still being in severe pain.

“I’m certainly never going back to Providence,” he said.

Martin, a retired physician assistant, said he discovered health care workers had written patient notes about him describing him as a difficult patient who kept asking workers about their vaccination status.

Martin said health care workers take an oath to do no harm.

“I can no longer trust Providence hospital to do what is best for me, their patient, when I am most vulnerable. That is more than sad. It's frightening,” he said.

Some patients and workers are raising concerns about Providence allowing unvaccinated employees to care for patients.

Asante, a nonprofit organization that runs hospitals in Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass, has a 100% COVID-19 vaccination rate among workers who take care of patients, according to Asante officials.

But Providence Medford Medical Center, part of a multi-state nonprofit Catholic health care system, is allowing unvaccinated workers to take care of patients.

Providence officials said in an email to the Mail Tribune that Providence in Southern Oregon “has a vaccination compliance rate of 98%. This means that all of these caregivers have either been vaccinated or received a medical or religious exemption.”

Providence doesn’t break down that 98% to disclose what percentage of health care workers are vaccinated and what percent received a medical or religious exception.

Gov. Kate Brown instituted a mandate that health care and K-12 education workers get vaccinated by Oct. 18 or get a medical or religious exception. Unvaccinated workers with exceptions from their employers may continue to treat patients, according to Oregon Health Authority spokesperson Erica Heartquist.

However, employers must take reasonable steps to make sure staff are protected from contracting or spreading COVID-19. The state rule doesn’t require specific steps, but suggestions include having unvaccinated workers wear N95 masks, be physically distanced from others in the workplace, work shifts when fewer people are at work, get tested regularly for COVID-19, work remotely or be reassigned, Heartquist said.

All health care workers are required to wear a face covering in health care settings, regardless of their vaccination status, she said.

Providence officials said in an email that safety precautions are in place.

“The safety of our patients and our caregivers is our highest priority,” Providence said. “We continue to require personal protective equipment, including universal masking, eye protection for all patient encounters, full PPE for highest-risk patient care areas and social distancing.”

A vaccinated Providence Medford Medical Center nurse who asked that her name not be used said it’s easy to see which workers are unvaccinated at the hospital because they’re wearing N95 masks.

The masks fit more closely than regular surgical masks. N95 masks are most familiar to the public as the type of mask many people wear to filter out wildfire smoke.

The Providence nurse said unvaccinated co-workers take off their N95 masks when eating in break rooms, endangering other workers.

She said Providence’s lenient approach to vaccination has attracted unvaccinated Asante workers who left their jobs rather than get vaccinated.

“There are nurses working here who are unvaccinated. A whole slew of them are getting hired because Asante requires the vaccine and Providence doesn’t. So the nurses who are leaving Asante are coming over to Providence,” she said.

Unvaccinated Asante nurses who come to work for Providence are earning thousands of dollars each from sign-on bonuses, she said.

She said some patients are worried about being cared for by unvaccinated nurses, but others are listening to anti-vaccination messages from those nurses.

“Some of them are as appalled as I am,” she said. “Others seem to be listening and adding it to their collection of reasons not to get vaccinated. Some of them are already listening to the misinformation that’s out there and then they hear it from a nurse and they feel confirmed. ‘Well, I was right.’ Nurses should be bringing them the science, not confirming the garbage that’s out there.”

She said patients are already hearing misinformation on social media and from some politicians. With nurses providing so much direct care, patients look to them for accurate information.

“Nurses are supposed to be trustworthy, reliable sources of health information for patients. When they’re talking to patients they’re saying, ‘Well, no one will make me get vaccinated. I left Asante because they require the vaccine.’ They’re spreading misinformation, essentially. If these nurses have no regard for science, no regard for CDC recommendations, what does that say about their nursing practice? They clearly can’t be evidence-based practitioners if they don’t believe in the science and the CDC recommendations. It’s just really embarrassing for the nursing profession,” she said, referencing federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on COVID-19 safety.

The nurse said some vaccinated workers have taken their concerns to Providence managers. Managers have told them Providence has to do what it can to retain and hire workers to maintain safe nurse staffing levels.

“Then they remind us that it’s a personal choice and we have to be accepting of people’s differences,” the nurse said. “They don’t touch the question of what does this mean about their practice and whether they are basing their nursing practice on science.”

She said the overloaded health care system can’t get ahead of the COVID-19 problem if the community doesn’t achieve sufficient immunity.

“If we don’t get COVID under control, we’ll always have not enough nurses because we’ll always have too many COVID patients,” she said.

Martin, the patient who was at Providence Medford Medical Center, said patients should have the right to ask if health care workers they encounter are vaccinated. At the least, they should be able to opt out of care by unvaccinated workers from the very beginning of their care. The opt-out approach would protect worker privacy, he said.

Martin said the unvaccinated workers’ opposition to COVID-19 vaccines seemed to be based on politics or religion, not medical concerns.

“One of them said, ‘We don’t have to do what Comrade Kate tells us to do,’” Martin said one unvaccinated worker remarked about Oregon’s governor.

Asante President and Chief Executive Officer Scott Kelly said he isn’t sure how many Asante workers have gone to work for Providence because of the vaccination issue. At Asante, 59 workers chose to leave and 163 had their employment terminated.

"I want to express how difficult the decision was to require a fully vaccinated workforce,“ Kelly said. ”We did not want to lose one single employee."

Providence officials said they know some of their current caregivers have previously worked for other health care systems, and vice versa.

“This movement was not unusual even before the pandemic,” they said.

Asante chose to require vaccination for those who care for patients in order to protect patients, workers and the community, Kelly said.

Kelly said he hasn’t heard specifics about Providence offering thousands of dollars in sign-on bonuses to Asante workers, but Asante is also offering large signing bonuses amid a tight labor market.

Kelly said some Asante patients are demanding that they receive care only from vaccinated workers. Asante is able to comply because of its vaccinated workforce. He said he doesn’t know if any patients have chosen Asante over Providence because of the vaccination issue.

Kelly said Asante believes it has chosen the best path to help control the spread of the virus.

“As a health care organization, we have a higher calling. Making sure that our employees are vaccinated, making sure we’re doing all we can to protect the patients and the community and the employees is why we’re here,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.