For weeks, leaders at St. John’s Health have dreaded losing employees due to a federal vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. Most recent estimations showed that 78 workers, 9% of the hospital’s workforce, were poised to lose their positions on Dec. 6 if they failed to get the jab.

“That would decimate our ability to meet the healthcare needs of the community,” St. John’s CEO Dave Robertson said in mid-November.

“We are very hopeful that we will not see heavy losses, but we are extremely concerned.”

In a Nov. 10 email to staff, Robertson urged employees not to leave the Jackson hospital because of the federally mandated shots, which he said would help keep staff and patients safe. Because the nationwide order came from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, any institution in the country receiving funds from that entity was essentially forced to comply.

That changed, at least in the short term, on Monday when a federal judge filed a temporary hold on the vaccine requirement for healthcare workers in 10 states including Wyoming. The preliminary injunction issued by St. Louis-based U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp applies to states which filed lawsuits against the federal mandate — an initiative pushed by Gov. Mark Gordon and praised by his office Monday.

“This is welcome news for Wyoming’s rural healthcare facilities, which are already facing staffing challenges without additional unconstitutional burdens being placed on their employees by the federal government,” Gordon said in a statement. “Healthcare employees should not be forced to choose between vaccination and termination.”

Like the temporary block on the federal vaccine requirement for businesses with 100 or more workers, this new ruling temporarily prevents implementation and enforcement of the healthcare mandate, meaning those 78 workers at St. John’s and thousands more across the country won’t lose their jobs if they decline to get vaccinated by this weekend.

But while Gordon framed the ruling as a success for rural hospitals, Robertson said it puts them in a more difficult position.

“Realistically there is no way of knowing how long that stay will exist, you know, it could be days, weeks, months or years. So we’ll continue to work to get everyone in compliance,” the CEO said.

With the threat of termination evaporating, there’s less of an incentive to get vaccinated, making complete compliance nearly impossible. The hospital was planning to host vaccine clinics for staff at the end of this week; now it seems there will be few takers.

“[For] someone who was previously reluctant to get the vaccine, this might very well cause them to make a choice to postpone that,” Robertson said.

Back when more than 100 employees were at risk of suspension, department directors were prioritizing conversations with reluctant staffers at St. John’s.

“This is something that, you know, anecdotally we’ve heard has worked,” Human Resources Director Thom Kinney said at the time. “When a physician sits down one-on-one and has a conversation with someone, sometimes that can make a difference.”

“We’re a small hospital,” he added. “We have relationships with all of these employees. It’s not just about numbers. These are people who are part of our team. So, you know, we want to make sure we’ve done everything we can to have those conversations in a meaningful way.”

It’s not entirely clear if those interactions were successful.

The Jackson hospital originally estimated 170 workers were at risk of suspension and termination for not complying with the Centers for Medicaire and Medicaid Services requirement. The majority of that cohort either provided proof of vaccination, chose to get vaccinated, or applied for a religious or medical exemption, Robertson said Monday. Others were remote workers and therefore exempt.

But the 78 staffers who remain nonexempt and unvaccinated are likely set in their ways, Robertson said.

They are “clearly people that have very deeply held beliefs,” he said, who have forgone a $600 financial incentive to get the jab, and who were willing to make a career change instead of getting vaccinated.

For now, it appears those staffers will be able to keep their jobs regardless of vaccination status, and St. John’s will retain its workforce, which is already stretching to cover 100 vacant positions.

Contact Evan Robinson-Johnson at 732-5901 or ERJ@jhnewsandguide.com.

Evan Robinson-Johnson covers issues residents face on a daily basis, from smoky skies to housing insecurity. Originally from New England, he has settled in east Jackson and avoids crowds by rollerblading through the alleyways.

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