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Nurse Debbie Spielmann administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Jackie Doyle at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center, Janesville.

COVID-19 still could affect health care staffing as the pandemic rolls on, but a mostly vaccinated workforce has eased concerns, a Mercyhealth official said.

Although many frontline workers at Mercyhealth have opted to be vaccinated, safety precautions remain because of unknowns surrounding the coronavirus, including whether vaccinated people can pass on the virus to others, said Mark Goelzer, Mercyhealth medical director.

Globally, health care workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic, tending to patients who are severely ill or who have died alone because of the disease.

Frontline workers were prioritized to receive vaccine in Wisconsin to preserve a medical system that has been stressed for nearly a year, especially during a case surge in November that prompted the state to create a field hospital in West Allis.

Health care workers still need to wear masks and be mindful of social distancing while working, Goelzer said, even though many of them have been vaccinated.

One recent change in guidelines will help keep health care workers on the job.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that fully vaccinated people who are exposed to a positive case of COVID-19 should quarantine only if they show symptoms, Goelzer said.

The public is advised to quarantine for 14 days after exposure, regardless of symptoms, because of the risk of asymptomatic infection.

Mercyhealth is aggressively monitoring the workers’ health and will recommend quarantine for anyone showing symptoms, Goelzer said.

People are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after they get both doses of COVID-19 vaccine. That means many health care workers are not yet fully vaccinated, although they have started the process.

As of Thursday, the Rock County Public Health Department’s reopening dashboard showed local hospitals were reporting critical staff shortages.

The dashboard also showed five new cases of COVID-19 among health care workers, reported between Feb. 4 and 17. The county’s goal is five or fewer new cases over a 14-day period. New cases among health care workers have been down since December compared to last summer and fall.

Staffing levels at health care facilities could still be affected by vaccine hesitancy among some employees, Goelzer said. Vaccines work best when as many people are vaccinated as possible, which creates herd immunity.

“It is almost like a social responsibility,” Goelzer said. “It is for your own good, but also good as a population.”

The need for a healthy workforce continues, even as active cases of COVID-19 decrease in Rock County.

As of Friday, Rock County had 271 active cases of COVID-19, the lowest number since Sept. 6. However, 14 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday, which is down from the November peak but much higher than last summer and early fall.

As of Thursday, 26% of the county’s intensive care unit beds were available—short of the county’s goal of 35%, according to county data.

Goelzer said he is aware that a small group of health care workers are hesitant to receive the vaccine.

The size of that group has decreased over time. Many people chose not to get the vaccine at first, but they changed their minds as they saw other people get it, Goelzer said.

Mercyhealth officials are trying to gauge how much of their workforce is vaccinated. One obstacle is monitoring the vaccination of traveling physicians, who might work for a time at Mercyhealth but receive the vaccine elsewhere, Goelzer said.

Hospital officials are making efforts to educate and encourage those who have not yet been vaccinated, he said.

Goelzer said the COVID-19 vaccine is safe. Although it was developed quickly, it is based on technology that has existed for a decade or so, he said.

As a pediatrician, Goelzer often addresses vaccine hesitancy with patients and their families. His biggest selling point is based on his own experience as a child, when he spent summers quarantined in his yard because of polio.

It is hard for people who have never seen cases of polio, measles, smallpox or other vaccine-preventable diseases to understand the importance of a vaccine, Goelzer said.

“I think the fact we had almost 500,000 people in this country die (from COVID-19) should be reason enough” to get vaccinated, he said.

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