By Riham Alkousaa
BERLIN (Reuters) – Frank Vogel, a 64-year-old local politician from the eastern German Erzgebirge region, has been scrambling to find ways to keep nursing homes open when a vaccine mandate for healthcare workers takes effect next month.
His region near the Czech border has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Germany. With only 57% of healthcare workers there having received two shots against the coronavirus, implementing the mandate would result in staff shortages that would force facilities to shut.
“In the end, you have the question: How do you then deal with the people being cared for in these facilities?” Vogel told Reuters.
Requiring healthcare staff to get vaccinated by March 15 is the first step in the new government’s plan to make shots compulsory for all adults.
But it has stirred concerns that thousands will be out of a job, leaving hospitals and nursing homes understaffed and overwhelming the healthcare system two years into the pandemic.
On Wednesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced an easing of COVID-19 restrictions as a recent surge from the more infectious Omicron variant appeared to have passed its peak.
But he said a general vaccine mandate was still necessary to deal with possible new variants and a worsening situation in autumn and winter.
The debate in Germany highlights the difficulty in making vaccinations compulsory in the country’s federal system and is likely to undermine efforts to extend the rule to all adults.
Germany has a lower vaccination rate than many other western European nations at about 75% fully vaccinated. Around 92% of hospital workers have received two shots against the virus, a survey by the Robert Koch Institute showed.
Christine Vogler, head of the German Nursing Council (DPR), said the mandate would hit a sector already suffering staff shortages two years into the pandemic, with more than 200,000 nursing jobs currently unfilled.
“I have a choice between unvaccinated caregivers and no care at all. This is a bad solution,” she said.
Vogel and other district councillors in the eastern state of Saxony, which has Germany’s lowest vaccination rate and where almost 30% of healthcare staff are unvaccinated, have begged federal and state health authorities to scrap the mandate which passed parliament in December.
But after a meeting of state health ministers last week, it looks likely to go ahead. All 16 states agreed to implement the law as long as they are allowed to find ways to avoid staff shortages.
For instance, facilities could use former nursing staff or people with no nursing training to give support in non-medical areas, a spokesperson for the health ministry said.
Even so, Eike Hennig, head of the medical office of the eastern city of Magdeburg, said he was sceptical about implementing the rule in a city in which around 900 healthcare workers, 10% of total staff, are still unvaccinated.
He suggested the next few weeks could be used to convince workers to be vaccinated with the newly approved Novavax vaccine, whose more traditional technology could win over some skeptics.
However the looming mandate, stressful work conditions particularly during the pandemic, and low pay already appear to prompted some to leave the profession.
Almost 23,000 healthcare workers have registered as job seekers in the past two months, up 60% year-on-year, data from the federal Labour Office showed.
“We are currently registering resignations of nursing staff. They say ‘I won’t get involved in this situation from March 15, I will become unemployed.’ That can’t be the goal,” Hennig said.
Stefanie Bresnik, a 36-year-old nurse in the western city of Dusseldorf, said almost half of her colleagues are, like her, unvaccinated.
She said neither the mandate nor the Novavax vaccine would convince her get a shot. On Saturday, she organised a protest along with other colleagues against the mandate in the city.
“We feel … betrayed. So we were good enough to be exposed to this risk for these two years, and now we should get vaccinated and give up this self-determination right over our bodies? No!” Bresnik said.
Some healthcare workers have sought to challenge the mandate but Germany’s top court earlier this month rejected emergency petitions.
“In my opinion, the solution at the moment is to drop the mandate and to see how the COVID pandemic develops,” Vogel said.
(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa; Editing by Josephine Mason and David Holmes)