Dartmouth Health to require COVID booster for employees

  • Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., on March 6, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Will Parson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2022 6:35:57 PM
Modified: 8/18/2022 2:32:28 AM

LEBANON — Dartmouth Health is requiring employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster — often referred to as a third shot — by Nov. 4. The mandate in addition to the primary two-shot series the health system first began requiring last fall.

Dr. Michael Calderwood, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center’s chief quality officer, said in a video DH released Tuesday that during the omicron wave last winter, people who had received the primary series of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and a booster dose were 50% less likely to test positive and had protection against severe disease that lasted six months, longer than people who had not gotten all three shots.

He also said individuals who have been vaccinated with a booster are 3½ times less likely to be hospitalized and nine times less likely to die of COVID-19.

“We at Dartmouth Health have really been pushing to get all of our staff protected and, understanding the importance of this to the health and safety of our staff, our patients and everyone in our health care system, we’re now expanding the COVID-19 vaccine requirement to include a COVID-19 booster as a condition of employment,” Calderwood said in the video recording.

He noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines, which can mean different numbers of shots depending on people’s ages and whether or not they are immunocompromised.

“While we are only requiring documentation of one booster at this time, I continue to advocate individuals to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to ensure that you are up-to-date and maximally protected,” Calderwood said.

DH is not the first Upper Valley organization to institute such a requirement. Nearby Dartmouth College late last year began requiring that students and employees, without approved exemptions, have both the primary series shots and a booster dose.

But at least one DHMC employee questioned the health system’s decision to implement the new requirement now while levels of COVID-19 in the Upper Valley are low, according to CDC metrics, and while the health system is struggling with a serious workforce shortage.

“I was a little surprised when they decide now of all times to mandate the booster,” a longtime DHMC nurse said in an interview Wednesday. She spoke with the Valley News on the condition that she wouldn’t be identified by name, citing a policy that bars employees from speaking with reporters without permission of the DH communications office.

The nurse said she has never seen so many traveling nurses at the Lebanon medical center. In addition, the nurse said DH has implemented several incentives to encourage nurses to work overtime. The hospital now posts lists of available overtime shifts two weeks in advance rather than calling when the need arises. Sometimes DH offers nurses $20 per hour above their base pay for overtime. and other times it offers $40 more, in addition to differentials for weekends, holidays and nights. To make it easier for nurses with long commutes to work overtime, DH has covered their stays at hotels near DHMC.

“We are absolutely bleeding for help,” the nurse said. “… It seems like a terrible time to tick staff off.”

For her part, the nurse said she loves her job and she plans to get a booster by Nov. 4 in response to the mandate. But she said she’s frustrated that she’s required to and she isn’t certain why.

The CDC recommends COVID-19 vaccines for everyone 6 months or older and boosters for everyone 5 years and older. Boosters can help boost the body’s immune response, reducing the severity of infection, according to the CDC. Even those who are allergic to the vaccine or who are so severely immunocompromised that the shots might not be effective can take Evusheld, which works to prevent COVID-19.

The nurse said that if the benefit of a booster is that it reduces the severity of infection, then that should be a risk she should be allowed to take. She also said she’s frustrated that she has to continue to wear a surgical mask every day.

“It’s rough,” she said. “People can’t read your facial expressions.”

Meanwhile, the nurse said other COVID-19 mitigation strategies at the hospital and beyond have been relaxed. She said that social distancing in waiting rooms has been reduced to 3 feet from the former 6 feet. The hospital is no longer conducting asymptomatic COVID-19 testing. Other than the mask requirement, visiting rules have largely returned to pre-COVID-19 procedures, she said.

She said she thinks other employees might quit in response to the booster requirement. DH said in October that more than 99% of its workers had complied with the mandated primary series or gotten an exemption to the mandate, but the health system declined to say how many people got the exemptions or left their jobs due to the mandate.

If nurses and others do leave due to the latest booster requirement, the nurse said, she worries that patient care could be affected.

Even now, the nurse said she’s so busy caring for people that she isn’t able to take the time to help patients fill out their menus, answer the phone, let visitors in in a timely manner, rub somebody’s feet, shampoo their hair or sit with their family members.

“That’s what causes nursing burnout,” she said. “You start to feel like you’re treating cattle and not people; start to lose the human touch. That’s why I think a lot of people are leaving.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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