CHEYENNE – Staff vaccinations have gone up slightly since Cheyenne Regional Medical Center implemented its requirement to either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing, hospital leadership said Thursday.

Greater than 87% of the medical system’s staff of about 2,100 people are fully vaccinated, CRMC President and CEO Tim Thornell said Thursday – an increase from the 81% the system reported in mid-November.

In late November, Thornell made the official announcement to staff that employees had to either receive their first dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, by Dec. 6, or submit their intent to be tested weekly by Dec. 5. Employees who went with a two-dose vaccine needed to receive the second dose by Jan. 4.

The medical system’s official policy announcement came after a federal judge blocked a Biden administration mandate that would have required virtually all health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

On Thursday, however, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would allow a federal rule to go into effect that requires health care workers at facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid to be vaccinated. Thornell said CRMC would comply with the mandate and was waiting for timeline guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

About 11% of employees have opted for regular weekly testing under CRMC’s current policy, Thornell said. These employees use Vault Health PCR tests, like those provided to the public by the state for at-home testing. Results are typically received in 48 to 72 hours, if not less, he said.

Even with a greater number of employees vaccinated, the hospital has seen an increase in the past couple of weeks of staff needing to quarantine. As of Wednesday, more than 60 staff members were quarantined, with most of those having tested positive, Thornell said. None were hospitalized. Thornell said he did not have a breakdown for that day of how many were vaccinated.

On Jan. 7, 121 lab-confirmed positive tests were reported in the county, which is the largest single-day number since November 2020.

But while cases in Laramie County have been increasing, the number of hospitalizations at CRMC has remained low in relation to case numbers.

This seems to follow a pattern seen in other areas with the omicron variant, Thornell said. As of Thursday morning, the hospital had just 24 COVID-positive patients – far from peak numbers seen in past months. Four of the current patients are fully vaccinated.

Although he said it’s too early to tell if there’s been a dramatic change in the demographics of hospitalized patients, Thornell said that, anecdotally, the hospital was seeing “a slight increase” in pediatric patients. “At least two” of the 24 currently hospitalized are children, he said.

While the relatively low number of hospitalizations has made current staffing shortages manageable, Thornell said he’s worried about what could happen in the next couple of weeks if case numbers continue to rise.

“While it is, and we all believe that (omicron) is, potentially less severe, nonetheless, as so many more patients have the potential to contract it, we’ll still see a decent amount probably come into the hospital,” he said. “So, if our inpatient numbers increase along with our quarantine numbers staying at this high rate, then it will become highly problematic. But today, we’re able to manage through it pretty nicely.”

Thornell said “fewer than half a dozen” employees had either been fired or left of their own volition because of the policy, pointing out that the number is less than 0.5% of the hospital system’s total staff.

A lawsuit was filed Dec. 22 in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming in Cheyenne against CRMC and a Douglas hospital by a group of employees, including two from CRMC, challenging the vaccine-or-testing policy, according to reporting from the Douglas Budget.

“The allegations in the lawsuit are inaccurate, and we will defend against them,” Thornell said Thursday.

CRMC isn’t currently requiring a booster or third dose for employees, the hospital president said. At the moment, the medical system’s definition of “fully vaccinated” continues to be the primary series of one to two shots, depending on the vaccine type.

“But again, I think one thing we’ve all learned through this long journey of COVID is we have to be adaptable and agile to what comes next,” Thornell said. “So, you know, that may be in the future, but it’s not in our immediate future.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still considers people who have received the primary series to be fully vaccinated, though its website encourages booster doses, or additional doses for people who are immunocompromised.

Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at hblack@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.

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