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Vaccination mandate deadlines loom for local healthcare facilities

  • Rivermead employee COVID-19 testing Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/8/2021 1:57:30 PM

Local healthcare providers are mandating employees be vaccinated against COVID-19, leading some to resign or seek religious exemptions and others to accept the vaccine.

As of Thursday, all employees at RiverMead in Peterborough will be required to either have their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine or submit a request for exemption. RiverMead CEO Lara Shea said an announcement to staff was sent out Aug. 13 and the formal policy was issued on Aug. 16. As part of the mandate, all employees must receive their first shot – or only shot if choosing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine – by Sept. 9 and the final shot if either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine is chosen by Oct. 7. 

“I don’t think anyone was surprised,” Shea said. “Most healthcare systems are going this way.”

RiverMead joins Monadnock Community Hospital and Genesis HealthCare, which operates Pheasant Wood Center in Peterborough, as local healthcare providers to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for all employees. This week, Monadnock Community Hospital officials announced in a statement that “all MCH employees and service providers must be immunized for Covid-19 or granted an exemption by November 1st.”

“In light of our community’s relatively low COVID-19 vaccination rate and a surge in infections from the Delta variant, employee vaccinations against COVID-19 are critical to ensure safe environments of care for our staff and for our patients by providing protection from infection and mitigating the spread of the virus within our facilities,” MCH President and CEO Cyndee McGuire said in the statement.

Shea said residents of RiverMead were “getting very anxious for it,” and “they’re worried about themselves, their health and their neighbors.” Shea said the hope was that a mandate would not be needed. “But the reality is (COVID-19) has crept back and it’s much more dangerous,” she said.

While the timeline gave employees plenty of time to receive the vaccine or submit a request for a religious or medical exemption, Shea understands that receiving the vaccine is a personal choice and one that is “a tricky issue.”

“It’s important to listen to the other side and be respectful,” Shea said. “This was a very hard decision to make, but this is the right thing to do for RiverMead and for our residents.” Shea said that so far 20 exemptions have been granted and four others chose to resign due to the vaccine mandate. Others decided to get the vaccine.

“We are holding our breath to see what people decide,” Shea said Wednesday.

Jessica Haavisto of New Ipswich, a registered nurse at RiverMead, said she has applied for and was granted a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate put into place.

She said a mandate was on her radar, but knew early on that she would not receive the vaccine.

“I have chosen to not receive the vaccine for medical and religious reasons. I am a Christian and I believe that with that comes a commitment to steward the gifts God has given me well, which includes my body. I believe that me receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is not something that would uphold this commitment at this time,” Haavisto said.

Haavisto said she wasn't surprised and was expecting to receive an exemption “because I believe that it would have been unlawful for them to not do so.”

Haavisto said she feels a vaccine mandate crosses the line.

“It is not the responsibility of my employer to dictate anything concerning my body and my health,” she said.

Haavisto said there are many employees who are upset, including employees who believe in medical freedom that have been vaccinated.

“Nobody wants to feel that their valued job is in jeopardy over a personal medical decision. Some of these employees have already resigned, which is very unfortunate as we all play an important role at RiverMead, and also because there is already a lack of staffing in all departments,” she said.  Haavisto said she believes that more employees will be submitting their resignations this week “as many of us do not agree with the conditions that RiverMead has mandated for those of us whose religious exemptions were granted,” and “these resignations have and will continue to place a huge burden on the remaining staff and management team who are left to pick up the slack.” 

Shea said of the 300 or so employees at RiverMead, 80 to 90 were unvaccinated prior to the mandate announcement. She expected that number to be in the 20 range after Thursday. Prospective employees will either have to be vaccinated or apply and be granted an exemption for employment, Shea said.

She said the organization is making contingency plans if a large number of employees decide to leave due to the mandate, calling the situation “nerve-racking.”

She said “there’s no denying this will be a barrier” in the future when it comes to employment, simply because there’s such a need in the healthcare field.

“If you’re a worker, you’re really in high demand,” Shea said. But also said being a vaccine-mandated community could be a bonus for potential employees as “some people are looking for that environment.”

MCH announced its intention to put in place a vaccine mandate in August.  Over 85% of MCH employees have been fully vaccinated, according to the statement, “and through proactive education and awareness, it is hopeful that many of the remaining unvaccinated employees will choose to comply with the policy.”

McGuire said all hospitals around the state are working to implement a vaccine mandate. McGuire said MCH has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state among hospitals.

 “We know vaccination is the right thing to do for the greater good of our community,” she said.

She said a survey was sent to employees that had not received the vaccine to identify the reasons behind their decisions. She said from responses there have been a number of reasons offered, including long-term effects, religious or medical reasons  and FDA approval. On Aug. 23, the FDA announced its approval of the Pfizer vaccine.

McGuire said the plan is to work with those employees to educate them about the importance of getting vaccinated. She said it’s not unusual for hospitals to require vaccinations, including f or the flu.

“I don’t think we’ll be unique in requiring vaccination,” McGuire said.

Dawne Beamer, a respiratory therapist at MCH, received her vaccination shots in March, but was part of a group of employees who decided to hold off during the initial rounds of vaccination in December citing wanting to do more research and see how it unfolded.

“I didn’t want to make that choice out of fear,” Beamer said. “I didn’t want to be pressured or petrified to make that choice.” But after seeing more patients stricken with coronavirus and doing her research, she felt comfortable in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. “The benefits definitely outweighed the risk.”

And she has seen the effects the virus has on patients.

“We’re seeing the long-term deficiencies of patients that were sick with COVID,” Beamer said. “Many say they wish they had the vaccine.”

Most of her patients in recent months have been those who did not receive the vaccine and what she has seen is scary.

“These patients are requiring a lot of oxygen,” she said

She said the pandemic is something that “we’re all facing together and we need to collaborate and get educated.”

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of fear out there,” Beamer said; her advice? “You have to trust science.”

McGuire said the rising level of cases in the area shows the need for the hospital to do everything it can to protect its employees.

“The transmission rate is increasing in our state and our community,” she said. “We expect a surge – well, we’re already starting to see it.”

Employee levels in general are something that worry McGuire, but recently MCH has been successful in recruiting for open positions. She doesn’t anticipate a mass exodus due to the mandate or issues for future hiring.

Pheasant Wood’s policy required current staff, visiting providers, care partners, and onsite vendors to have a single dose of the Janssen vaccine or the first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine by Aug. 23. The second dose will be required by Sept. 22.

Positive cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19 infections continue to rise around the state and in the Monadnock region. On Monday, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services announced there are 3,221 active COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire and 141 hospitalizations.


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