James M. Berklan

Many eyes of the long-term care world are focused on an unexpected place this week. It rests just north of the “Cheddar Curtain.”

Rock County typically sits quietly on the Illinois border in central Wisconsin. Lincoln once gave a speech there and a famous pen maker was once headquartered there. But the bucolic land of about 160,000 residents is not generally known for controversy or causing much of a kerfuffle lately.

In fact, it has the world’s second tallest peace pole, which at 52 feet was the tallest when it was originally built in the 1920s after unrest.

But now the intersection of long-term care, public policy and COVID-19 have put the county back on the map in a dissonant way.

In December, the county started mandating that employees at its Rock Haven nursing home must be vaccinated against the coronavirus. At least 14 held out and were laid off. Now 11 of them have started legal proceedings that could lead to a lawsuit against the public body. The figure bandied about is $550,000 and counting (taking into account that it’s spelled legal “fees” not “free”).

While many of the nation’s providers struggle with the ins and outs of possibly mandating staff vaccinations, the curtain has already risen on the drama in Janesville, the county seat. Many of the nagging issues have come to the fore: Is the local stipulation at odds with federal framework? Does the federal “Experimental Use Authorization” label impact employers’ ability to leverage employees? Is it appropriate that only the nursing home is governed by such a county dictate? Can employers lay off or fire workers who don’t qualify for health or other exemptions and still resist? And so on.

Already there are signs of retreat, which in a way is unfortunate. Resolution for the nation’s soul-searching will only come after more friction, in numerous locales. The county board is expected to take up a vote to rescind the policy as early as next Thursday. The board’s Health Services Committee voted 4-1 this week to recommend the policy be discontinued and the holdout employees given jobs again. 

As a result, this issue might fade away soon, if not inexpensively. Returning workers apparently would not be guaranteed their same positions if they return.

As providers — indeed employers of many stripes — fumble in the dark in an effort to figure out how heavy of a vaccination lever might be appropriate, Rock County has offered a glimmer of light. 

It’s something for the rest of us to ponder as COVID-19 begins its descent off the front pages. The virus may recede into a potentially dangerous holding cell, where new developments, including a dangerous new variant(s), could throw conditions into an uproar again.

Follow Executive Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.