Editor's Note: This story was updated at 6 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2021, to include comments from the Agency of Human Services.
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 4:30 on Oct. 7, 2021, to include direct comments from the Retreats' CEO.
BRATTLEBORO — Retreat staff must show proof of vaccination by Oct. 18 or will be terminated from their positions.
The organization-wide mandate was issued Wednesday after an unvaccinated Retreat staff member infected other staff and patients, causing an outbreak at the psychiatric facility, according to a notification from Retreat President and CEO Louis Josephson.
"So clearly, avoiding mandated vaccinations has not prevented service impacts to our operation," he wrote. "If anything, unvaccinated staff are a significant reason for disruption, illness, exceptional cost and effort related to the outbreak."
Josephson noted in his message that hospitals both in Vermont and nationwide have struggled to balance vaccination rates while providing an appropriate level of service to their patients.
"This grace period should give staff every opportunity to be vaccinated," he wrote, noting there is no cost for vaccination and that there are multiple convenient locations to do so.
"If you choose to get vaccinated, please stop in HR or Employee Health to show your vaccine card before [Oct. 18] so our records can be updated and you can continue working," he wrote. "If you choose not to be vaccinated that is your right, however unvaccinated individuals will no longer be employed by the Retreat as we must do everything we can to protect staff and patients."
Meanwhile, he wrote, over the next two weeks, all staff are expected to wear protective equipment.
"Failure to comply with these expectations will put continued employment at risk," he wrote.
Josephson told the Reformer on Thursday he was not happy to have made the announcement, but it was necessary to keep the Retreat's patients safe.
"When you get an outbreak like this, it’s a moment of clarity. You just have to do the right thing," he said. "We are trying to do the right thing by our patients."
Josephson said three patients in the Retreat’s adolescent unit have been affected and more than 100 Retreat staffers have tests that are pending.
"The patients are all doing well, which is the good news," he said.
Josephson said the Retreat struggled with the decision to issue a vaccine mandate because it was going to affect staffing.
"When you put out a memo like that, somebody is not going to stay because they have an objection and then your bed capacity goes down," he said.
Josephson said at this time, the Retreat has decided to freeze admissions.
"We were hoping to get our census up to 65 and above this week," he said. "Right now, we are in the upper 40s."
Josephson also said the Retreat has been very fortunate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We’ve had very few issues or infections in our hospital. We have lived in this bubble, which has been terrific for everyone," he said. "The idea we could run all of our beds open and have people unvaccinated miraculously didn’t happen. It’s false. Now admissions are frozen and we are running less beds than we could if everybody was healthy."
Andrea De La Bruere, executive director of the Agency of Human Services, said the outbreak at the Retreat affects the whole state.
"The timing of this is not good," she said. "It impacts the whole system in that we can’t move people of emergency departments."
De La Bruere said in addition to the three adolescents, the agency knows of two staffers who tested positive and who are isolating.
Nonetheless, she said, the fact that this is the first outbreak at the Retreat speaks to its diligence in taking care of both its staff and its patients.
"Now they’re implementing a mandatory vaccine requirement to further protect their organization," she said.
Josephson said that the Retreat, like many health care providers in the region, is dependent on traveling labor, which brings its own challenges, including having to compete for that labor.
"Another challenge with traveling labor is they’re going from place to place and a higher percentage of them are unvaccinated," he said.
Josephson said he was not laying the blame on traveling labor.
"It doesn’t matter if it was a Retreat staffer or a travel nurse," he said. "If you are unvaccinated, you are putting us and our patients at risk."
De La Bruere noted that the outbreaks in Vermont and around the country have demonstrated the efficacy of the vaccines.
"It’s affecting unvaccinated folks at an alarming rate," she said.