Essentia Health made a much-anticipated announcement Wednesday that its employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19. The health care provider already requires that its staff receive the flu vaccine each year.
Later in the day, St. Luke’s, Duluth’s second-largest provider, followed suit with a similar policy that has an earlier deadline.
Essentia issued a statement saying that after careful consideration, it will require all staff members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of their employment.
The requirement will apply to anyone entering facilities to perform services for Essentia Health, including all of its on-site employees, remote workers, volunteers, students, non-employed medical staff, vendors, contractors and board members.
Employees are expected to receive their first dose of vaccine by Oct. 1 and their second dose in a two-dose series by Nov. 1. There will be a process for requesting a medical exemption based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or a religious exemption.
Essentia President Dr. Jon Pryor acknowledged there will likely be some fallout as a result of the vaccine mandate.
"I would say based on other health care providers' experiences and just common sense, out of 13,000 employees, there are going to be some, for whatever reason — you just have to respect their thinking — that won't want the vaccine, and therefore, they will not ultimately be employed here. So, yes, I do expect we will lose some employees," he said.
Pryor said this fear of losing employees has given some already-short-staffed health care providers pause.
"I think that the other way to look at this, though, is that by keeping our employees healthy and safe, we're less likely to lose them to COVID or have them forced to quarantine. So, in the long run, this is going to be beneficial for being able to have the resources to care for patients. And most importantly, it's going to be reassuring to our patients to know that we're doing everything possible to keep them safe. At the end of the day, that's the most important obligation we have," he said.
In requiring employees to be vaccinated, Essentia will join the ranks of other health providers that have done the same, including the Mayo Clinic, Sanford, Fairview and Allina health systems. Minneapolis-based Children's Minnesota also announced a vaccine mandate for employees Wednesday. To date, Pryor noted that about 500 health systems across the nation have required their employees to vaccinate, and he said he expects that number will continue to grow.
St. Luke's originally planned to recommend vaccination. But the provider has changed course and is now requiring all employees, vendors, volunteers and board members to receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine or file a religious or medical exemption by Sept. 1 and to have completed the vaccine series by Oct. 1, according to a statement Wednesday from St. Luke’s Co-President/CEO and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen.
"We understand people have strong beliefs about this,” Van Deelen said. “Ultimately, the policy is about keeping our patients and staff safe and reducing the community transmission of a serious disease.”
St. Luke's reports that 78% of all its employees and 97% of its physicians are fully vaccinated.
As for the vaccination rate at Essentia, the health care provider said it estimates that its staff vaccination rate is similar to that of other large health systems around the Midwest. But Essentia has not been tracking vaccinations for its employees since mid-March.
It reported: "At that time, 87% of our physicians and 84% of our advanced practice providers were vaccinated, while 70% of those in other roles who were eligible for the vaccine had been vaccinated. Of course, since that time everyone has become eligible and we have strongly encouraged anyone who can be vaccinated to do so, especially health care workers whose duty it is to protect vulnerable, elderly and critically ill patients in the communities we serve."
While COVID-19 vaccines have been deemed effective and approved for emergency use, many employers have held off requiring staff to be vaccinated until the Food and Drug Administration fully approves the vaccines for general use. That approval is now expected by Labor Day.
Pryor acknowledged that pending full approval factored into Essentia's decision-making.
He said Essentia staff also had hoped the vaccination rate among the general public would have surpassed 70% by now.
"I mean: No one likes to mandate things. And we were hopeful not to have a fourth surge, but that's not happening," Pryor said.
"I want to remind everybody: We're still in a much better place than we were," he said. But Pryor referred to the virus and the risk it poses to the still-unvaccinated population as "a threat to our way of life."
"It's a threat to our economy. It's a threat to us to be able to socially interact. And we finally felt — after studying this and looking at the legal implications and thinking about all the pros and cons and listening to thought leaders on the topic, talking to ethicists, and so on — we felt this was the best course of action," he said.
This story was updated at 6:50 p.m. Aug. 4 with additional comments from St. Luke's President Nicholas Van Deelen and corrected at 9:07 p.m. to correct his title. It was previously updated with comments from Essentia's President Jon Pryor at 3:40 p.m. Aug. 4. It was originally posted at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 4.
The News Tribune's Teri Cadeau contributed to this story.