No COVID shots required: Ricketts behind Nebraska ads for nurses

Gov. Pete Ricketts decided to use lack of vaccine mandate to recruit
Posted at 1:30 PM, Aug 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-25 08:36:48-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Omaha and Lincoln’s largest health care systems announced last week that they would require their doctors, nurses and medical staff to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

This week, Nebraska state agencies sent mailers to local nurses advertising state nursing jobs. They emphasized Nebraska’s lack of a vaccine mandate for medical staff.

They did so at Gov. Pete Ricketts’ direction, 3 News Now Investigators has learned.

Spokesman Taylor Gage confirmed that the governor made the choice to pursue nurses opposed to vaccine mandates after the region’s top hospital systems announced the vaccine requirement.

Gage said Ricketts’ office had heard from health care workers complaining about the loss of choice. The governor worried the mandate could lead to “more nurses leaving the profession,” he said.

“At the governor’s direction, the state personnel division consulted with state agencies to develop this recruitment effort,” Gage said.

Gage and others said the state aims to fill long-open state nursing jobs in the Nebraska Departments of Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs and Corrections, to name a few.

Local nurses who spoke with 3 News Now Investigators this week, including Lincoln nurse Katherine Wolverton, said they couldn’t believe Nebraska’s decision to recruit nurses this way.

She received the mailer Monday and said it “felt really frustrating to me.”

“Their No. 1 thing to future employees is you don’t have to be vaccinated,” said Wolverton, who works at Bryan Health.

The mailer, obtained by 3 News Now, asks local nurses if they are looking for a new job. It says nursing jobs for the State of Nebraska encourage, but do not require, COVID-19 vaccines.

“It’s again not believing in these evidence-based facts,” Wolverton said. “And if you’re working with an elderly population, you’re putting them at additional risk by not being vaccinated yourself.”

State government is also advertising online for nursing jobs, including at the state’s nursing homes for elderly veterans. Those ads also emphasize state government’s lack of a vaccine mandate.

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue said she sent Ricketts a letter seeking an explanation. The letter says she’s heard from constituents worried about residents at the Eastern Nebraska Veterans Home.

“We’re being told that medical staff should be vaccinated,” she said. “Why are we choosing to ignore this? So I want answers. My constituents want answers.”

To Blood, the key question is how the executive branch made its decision, and whether that choice imperils residents at state nursing homes, prisons and other facilities.

John Hilgert, who heads Nebraska’s Department of Veterans Affairs, said people with loved ones in Nebraska’s four veterans’ homes know that they’re receiving quality care.

The state tests veterans home employees that have been vaccinated once a week, he said. It tests those who have not been vaccinated every 48 hours. The vets’ homes also require staff to wear masks.

“We have unvaccinated teammates in the state who have served admirably throughout the entire COVID epidemic,” he said. “We still encourage vaccinations. However, we’re not going to mandate it.”

Hilgert said the state needs nurses, too, and that they work hard to attract nursing talent year-round. He said he understands the concern that the state might be poaching nurses.

But, he said, “I wasn’t the one who put the mandate on those institutions. I think they chose to do that. The state as you know is an alternative for work for people who want to care for individuals.”

The recruiting push hits as Nebraska is already facing a surge of coronavirus cases because of the more contagious delta variant. Kids have headed back to school, too, including many without masks.

State officials said they did not yet know how much the ad campaign would cost taxpayers. But Gage said helping the state hire for unfilled positions was the right choice.

The governor says he still opposes vaccine and mask mandates, preferring to encourage people to make the best choices for themselves.

Most local medical and public health professionals have recommended vaccination and masking up indoors as ways to slow the spread of the virus.

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