Vaccine mandates aren't causing staff shortage, Mayo and Allina say

Two of Minnesota's biggest health care systems, Mayo Clinic and Allina Health, refute claims that their COVID-19 vaccine mandates are causing a staff shortage that has the state scrambling for answers.

Allina has fired 53 people, or 0.2 percent of its 27,000-person workforce for violating its vaccine policy, Kristin McHenry, Allina's government relations director said at a Senate Human Services committee hearing. Mayo hasn't cut any employees loose and will absorb the staffing impact if it terminates workers, said Dr. James Watson, who chairs Mayo's vaccine allocation efforts. Both systems enacted mandates this fall and have granted a majority of legitimate religious and medical exemption requests, the representatives said.

"Some of the situations where these things were not approved were things cut and pasted from the internet," Watson told senators.

Minnesota's health care system is like a clogged artery, with staffing shortages constricting the flow of patients. Shortages at long-term care facilities mean patients stay in hospitals longer and staffing issues at the hospitals mean there's less bed space there.

As of Wednesday, 1,624 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Minnesota, which is 88 percent of the all-time high in November 2020. But the hospitals have less capacity now because of staff departures.

Employee burnout after 20 months in the pandemic is the root of the problem, said Mary Krinkie of the Minnesota Hospital Association, which represents the state's health systems. One major health group reported having 50 percent fewer job applicants than a year ago, she said.

Hospitals have canceled all surgeries except lifesaving procedures, meaning lost revenue at a time when costs are up. Health systems are paying traveling nurses up to $220 an hour to fill staffing gaps.

"Hospitals are under enormous financial pressure, canceling surgeries and increased volumes of Medicare and Medicaid patients and we’re paying a lot more for staff," Krinkie told lawmakers.

The problems are worse at nursing homes.

Care Providers of Minnesota, which represents the industry, found 76 percent of facilities have reduced occupancy because they don't have enough workers. It's even higher, 90 percent, among rural Minnesota providers.

At least 42 nursing homes have asked for help from the Minnesota National Guard, which has 300 soldiers recently trained as certified nursing assistants. By the end of the week, the Guard will deploy to nine facilities, health officials said.

But other nursing home administrators are fearful of asking for the National Guard's help, thinking it might bring regulatory scrutiny on their operations.

"There’s this fear that they’re admitting that they need help and they can’t take care of people," said Cami Peterson-DeVries of St. Francis Health Systems, which runs 13 mostly outstate nursing facilities. "They don’t want to report it because there’s fear that maybe the Health Department will come in, and we’ve opened ourselves up to more problems."

Minnesota health officials said those fears were unfounded.

"We would not be going into a facility because they have raised their hand and said they need help," said Diane Rydrych, an assistant health commissioner. "We want facilities to let us know they need help. That is what the National Guard is there to do."

Meanwhile, health officials told lawmakers that long-term care staffers would be getting bonuses of between $1,000 and $4,000 from a $50 million pot of federal COVID-19 relief that Gov. Tim Walz's administration is using for retention and hiring bonuses. The average payment will be $1,095, health officials said.

Nursing home industry officials said at least 23,000 jobs -- more than 20 percent of the workforce -- are vacant. About 2,000 more staffers exit each month than new hires come aboard, said Nicole Mattson of Care Providers of Minnesota.

"It’s a perfect storm of increased costs, increased turnover, increased number of open positions, and low census, which is creating a recipe for disaster," she said.