RCH CEO: Hospital looking at requiring COVID-19 vaccine for employees

‘We want to take all considerations. We have not made a decision yet’

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ROCHELLE — Rochelle Community Hospital CEO Gregg Olson said Tuesday that the hospital has not yet decided whether or not it will require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

“We’re working on that right now,” Olson said. “We’re working with our medical staff and looking at what we should do going forward. It’s a tough conversation to have. We want to protect our patients, visitors and community and also those that feel strongly against it. We want to take all considerations.”

Olson said one of the biggest reservations RCH would have against requiring the vaccine for employees is the chance that the hospital could become short-staffed because of it. 

As a smaller, rural hospital, RCH’s bench isn’t deep, Olson said. He doesn’t want to chase employees away. 

“It’s hard to find the right people,” Olson said. “The last thing we want is to make a statement that people will not be happy with. That’s what makes it hard. What’s the potential fallout and the big picture? We can’t afford to lose staff and we don’t have the depth.”

Olson said ongoing conversations are being had with medical staff about a possible vaccination requirement. The decision is not being rushed, Olson said. Some other hospitals have already mandated the vaccine for employees. 

Informal conversations with the hospital’s board have also been had on the possibility of an employee vaccine mandate. RCH’s fully-vaccinated rate among employees currently stands at “around” 83-85 percent, Olson said. 

“We have a very high number,” Olson said. “I network with other hospitals like us and our rate is one of the highest. I think we’ve done a good job informing and educating our employees and we continue to do that. It is a personal decision and we get that.”

Olson said that just because of the number of vaccinated employees, the majority of RCH employees would be in favor of a vaccine mandate. 

“But are there people that have voiced concern over it? Absolutely,” Olson said. 

A few years ago, before COVID-19, RCH started mandating that employees receive a flu shot. That policy allows employees to not receive the flu shot, if they supply administration with a religious or health perspective on why they don’t want it. Those that don’t get flu shots are required to mask. Again, that policy dates back to pre-pandemic times. 

Olson said that if RCH were to require the COVID-19 vaccine for employees, the policy would look something like the flu shot policy did. 

“I’m thinking as we move forward, whatever it is, we’d look at how that was handled,” Olson said. “So everyone has a voice and won’t have to worry about losing their job. If someone is against it for religious or medical reasons, we’d respect that and require COVID-19 testing on a pretty frequent basis for them.”

Olson said in the healthcare industry and more, “everybody” is currently having the conversation about mandating the COVID-19 vaccine. He doesn’t know what percentage of hospitals have mandated it for employees, but said it seems like larger organizations have required it. 

Smaller hospitals like RCH have been less likely to require the vaccine due to difficulty of attracting staff, Olson said. 

RCH does feel a responsibility as the dominant healthcare provider in the community to educate staff, visitors and patients and be out in front on issues like the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“Many of us feel vaccinations do work,” Olson said. “They have a role in this process and we want to be available to those with questions. On a national basis it’s pretty common knowledge that scientists are praising the vaccine’s positive outcomes.”

The recent uptick in COVID-19 cases haven’t resulted in a lot of changes at RCH, Olson said. 

Those changes were already in place earlier in the pandemic and have stayed in place. RCH still screens at its main entrances and has a dedicated COVID-19 unit. Olson said the hospital has seen “maybe 2-3” COVID-19 patients in the past six weeks. That’s “probably” still more than it saw just prior to those six weeks. 

“But our policies really haven’t changed,” Olson said. “We’re doing the same things we have been for 20 months. I think we’ve already made preparations. We planned and strategized when the pandemic hit and just refer back to those. We haven’t changed that drastically. If this uptick does continue, we’ll pursue the same strategies we have.

One surprise Olson has seen is an increase in non-COVID-19 patients that isn’t historically common for this time of year. RCH’s med surge unit has been “busier” with non-COVID-19 patients. 

“That’s been interesting,” Olson said. “We’re not the only ones. Other hospitals like us are seeing it. When things were shut down, people deferred care. I think that could be part of why we’re seeing this. That makes some sense.”