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Rural Health Officials Push Back Against Biden's Vaccine Mandate

NOEL KING, HOST:

Long before the pandemic, rural American hospitals had trouble hiring doctors and nurses. And that is why health officials in rural areas say President Biden's mandate that health care workers get vaccinated is just not going to work for them. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In conservative rural America, the idea of the government imposing mandates doesn't sit well, something Matt Shahan encounters every day at West River Health Services. It's a 25-bed hospital he runs in Hettinger, N.D., population 1,000.

MATTHEW SHAHAN: People don't want to be told to get a vaccine. They want to be able to make that decision for themselves and their families.

SIEGLER: He says some of his staff felt blindsided by the news that they'd have to get vaccinated or potentially face a $14,000 fine. Morale was already low.

SHAHAN: You know, you're starting to hear the words early retirement and career changes a lot more often.

SIEGLER: West River Health currently has 30 open positions spread across its hospital in six rural clinics. And Shahan's worried that a government mandate directed at the vaccine-hesitant will deter more people in his small town from applying, let alone others who might consider moving out to take a job in a place like Hettinger.

SHAHAN: Every little thing like that that gives somebody a question of, do I want to go through that to work there? - it creates another wrinkle that gets in the way of, do I want to live in a rural area anyway?

SIEGLER: Just retaining nurses is a big concern right now in states like Idaho, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, and whose hospitals are now rationing health care. Abner King is CEO at Syringa Hospital in the town of Grangeville. Only about half of his staff is vaccinated, which he says is at least higher than the rural county as a whole.

ABNER KING: I have a number of staff, nurses and other staff, that are not comfortable taking the vaccine. And if it's mandated, I don't know how many of those we'll lose. But what I do know is we can't afford to lose a single one of them.

SIEGLER: When the mandate was announced, King sent out an email to his staff, urging them to take a deep breath and wait until the full details are known. After all, the rules are still being written, and lawsuits are likely looming.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MARTINIS' "HUNG OVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.