PRESS EDITORIAL: The unvaccinated caring for the most vulnerable

It’s not clear exactly what constituency members of the Ozaukee County Board’s Health and Human Services Committee think they are serving, but it surely is not the elderly and vulnerable residents of Lasata Care Center.

The committee, which has authority over the county nursing home, did not lift a finger at a meeting last week to address the alarming refusal by nearly half of the institution’s staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Desperate to increase the vaccination rate to protect Lasata residents who, it goes without saying, are in the age and health-status group most likely to become seriously sick or die from Covid, Ozaukee County Administrator Jason Dzwinel and Lasata Administrator Amanda Kohal proposed giving employees a $500 reward for being vaccinated.

Mequon Supr. Alice Read’s motion to approve the plan died for lack of a second. Committee members offered no alternatives to deal with the vaccination gap.

Only 58% of the Lasata staff have been vaccinated, a number far behind that of the general population in the U.S. and Wisconsin. Seventy-one percent of the residents of Wisconsin have received at least one dose of Covid vaccine.

Criticizing the vaccination payments as “insulting” to Lasata workers, committee member Scott Risel of Grafton spoke in support of staff members who refused vaccination, saying they “are doing it for health reasons.”

Kohal disagreed, pointing out that a survey of unvaccinated workers found that few based their refusal on medical concerns. Most cited political and personal reasons.

Putting politics ahead of the well-being of the senior citizens who entrust their care to the county government and its care center is an unfortunate priority, but not an unexpected one. Throughout the pandemic, the County Board leadership has displayed a cavalier attitude toward such defenses against the spread of the virus as masking and distancing.

When Risel asked if it had been “proven a Lasata employee has passed Covid to a resident,” Kohal’s answer was a succinct yes.           

 The extra pay she and Dzwinel sought for Lasata employees, which would have come from federal relief funds the county has received, was meant not just as an incentive, but as a reward for staff members who have taken the initiative to protect themselves and those in their care by being inoculated. Far from “insulting,” it would likely have been accepted as a welcome bonus by the majority of staffers.

It would also have provided a morale boost for unvaccinated employes who will be facing a federal vaccination mandate expected to take effect this fall. There will be no getting around the federal requirement; Medicare and Medicaid funding will be withheld from nursing homes that do not comply by having a fully vaccinated work force. Lasata gets most of its funding from the two government health programs.

Working as a nursing home caregiver can be stressful, especially in the inescapably threatening environment of a pandemic. Combined with the area’s acute labor shortage, filling staff positions is an ongoing challenge for Lasata, and there are fears the federal mandate will exacerbate it.

Fortunately, such fears have proven to be exaggerated in cases where vaccination mandates have already been imposed.

When Houston Methodist Hospital, one of the nation’s largest health systems, required vaccination as a condition of employment, more than 25,000 employees complied, and less than 500 refused.

When a nursing home in Kaukauna, Wis., St. Paul Elder Services, mandated staff vaccination, it reported losing about 5% of its employees as a result.

These are relatively small losses that can be offset by the protection vaccination gives against Covid outbreaks that sicken employees and take them off the job and into quarantine.

In a memo to the Health and Human Services Committee, Dzwinel wrote that Covid infections among Lasata staff and residents had been diagnosed in more than half of the last 18 months, stressing the staff and increasing costs, while putting a “terrible burden” on residents.

It was a compelling message, but with the exception of Supr. Read, committee members were not moved.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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