As Omicron surges, understaffed hospitals ease mandates, rehire unvaxxed employees

Traveling nurses, relief workers and National Guard mobilization are among the stopgaps to which states are resorting to cope with shortages of healthcare workers.

Published: January 1, 2022 3:47pm

Updated: January 3, 2022 11:11am

After unvaccinated healthcare workers were fired for refusing to comply with vaccine mandates, some are being asked to return to work due to staffing shortages amid increasing COVID-19 cases. 

In Canada, for example, Alberta Health Services announced on Dec. 23 it will allow unvaccinated healthcare workers to resume their jobs starting Jan. 10 if they submit to frequent testing. AHS cited expected increased demands on the health system due to the spread of the Omicron variant for the policy change. As of the date of the announcement, 1,400 healthcare workers who were not fully vaccinated had been placed on unpaid leave. 

AHS said that unvaccinated workers will be responsible for paying for and coordinating their COVID tests, which they must complete no more than 48 hours prior to their shifts. 

Quebec announced on Tuesday that some COVID-positive healthcare workers and other essential employees will be allowed to continue working in order to prevent breakdowns in services, CBC News reported. Healthcare workers who are triple-vaccinated will be prioritized. 

In Oregon, meanwhile, "30 percent of the nursing staff in some hospitals are made up of traveling nurses," Matt Calzia, a registered nurse and member of the Oregon Nurses Association, told Fox 12 Oregon in October. "In others, turn over [sic] is high. The majority of a unit might be composed of traveling nurses during some shifts."

That same month, St. Charles Health System in Bend, Ore., having lost more than 100 full-time staff in the previous month, hired 120 traveling nurses and received aid from the state National Guard, OPB News reported. St. Charles had as of then approved a little more than half of all medical and religious exemption requests.

President Biden told the National Governors Association last week that 1,000 military doctors, nurses, and medics are being mobilized to help hospitals with staffing. FEMA is also helping states struggling to keep up. 

"FEMA is deploying hundreds of ambulances and EMS crews to transport patients," Biden said. "We've already deployed emergency response teams in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. We're ready to provide more hospital beds as well." 

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul called the National Guard to assist with nursing homes after declaring a state of emergency over the omicron variant, Fox News reported

Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a healthcare worker vaccine mandate four months ago, terminating those who did not comply. Consequently, 31,858 health care workers in the state have either been terminated from their jobs, furloughed, or forced to resign, according to New York health data provided to the news outlet. As of Dec. 21, there was a total of 37,192 inactive employees in New York due to the mandate. 

States like Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and Iowa have also been experiencing staffing shortages as Omicron cases surge, and some continue to enforce vaccine mandates. 

Both Massachusetts and New Jersey have at least hundreds of confirmed firings due to vaccine mandates, Fox News reported. 

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker mobilized 500 National Guardsmen to assist hospitals as the state cuts some nonessential, elective procedures and services by half. 

Hospitals in Ohio paused their vaccine mandate in December for legal reasons and staffing shortages. Gov. Mike DeWine activated 1,050 National Guardsmen for hospital assistance. 

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