Tuesday, July 27, 2021
St. Luke’s Mandates Vaccinations to Keep Patients, Staff Safe
Dr. Kathryn Woods and her husband Dr. Richard Paris were among the first to get vaccinated at St. Luke’s Wood River when the Moderna vaccine was made available to health care workers and nursing home residents in December 2020.
Monday, July 12, 2021


St. Luke’s decision to require its 14,000 employees to be vaccinated was necessary for the safety of patients, the health system’s leaders said Friday.

Requiring the vaccine will also keep physicians and other hospital employees from getting sick from COVID, they added.

Chris Roth, president and CEO of St. Luke’s Health System, told reporters Friday that nearly 80 percent of the hospital system’s employees have received at least one dose of vaccine.

“But, quite frankly, that’s not good enough. We felt it was time to take the next step,” he said. “We’re concerned about the Delta vaccine. And we’ve seen an uptick among our own employees in terms of  positive tests.”

St. Luke’s announcement that it would require its employees to get vaccinated followed same-day announcements by Saint Alphonsus and Primary Health Medical Group that they would require vaccinations. With 14,000 employees, St. Luke’s Health System is Idaho’s largest employer.

Trinity Health, which oversees Saint Alphonsus, has more than 117,000 employees in 21 states—75 percent of whom are vaccinated. Primary Health has 640 employees—78 percent of whom are vaccinated. Primary Health’s Dr. David Peterman wrote that his medical care facility can’t go through another year like last year where a third of employees were out ill and clinics had to be closed.

There is no law—federally or locally—that prohibits employers from requiring employees to be vaccinated. And requiring vaccines is nothing new for St. Luke’s. The hospital has been requiring influenza vaccines for a decade. Fewer than 2 percent of its employees have asked to be exempted from that vaccine.

Adding the COVID-19 vaccine to its list of required vaccinations is furthering the hospital system’s commitment to protect patients, staff and the community, said Roth

Employees, providers, contractors, students and volunteers have until Sept. 1, 2021 to receive their first dose of vaccine. The hospital has an exemption process for those who do not wish to get vaccinated because of medical or religious reasons. A group of clinicians will approve or deny requests for exemptions.

Dr. Jim Souza, St. Luke’s chief physician executive, said St. Luke’s physicians have the highest vaccination rate among employees.

“The more familiar you are with vaccine science and immunology and the more direct exposure you’ve had to the illness, suffering and death that is continuing to happen with this infection the higher the vaccine numbers,” Souza said.

Souza said the hospital will do everything it can to keep from having to terminate employees for resisting the vaccine.

“We will make opportunities to create conversations with employees to answer the legitimate questions they have and offer information for them, to be another source of information. But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t change our true north about safety,” he said.

A few employees sued Houston Methodist for requiring staff be vaccinated. But a judge dismissed the lawsuit and the vaccination rate at the hospital climbed from about 80 percent to more than 98 percent.

“We’re confident in the decision we’re making,” said Roth. “We’re confident in our guiding principles. The data shows this vaccine is safe and effective.” 

Roth and Souza said the timing was right to require vaccines, given Idaho’s low rate of COVID-19 vaccinations; the rapid spread of the Delta variant, which has been detected in Boise and is at least 50 percent more contagious than previous variants; the unmasking of the public and plans for schools to return to full capacity in the fall.

Roth said the hospital long ago planned this step as part of a multi-phase process to require vaccine as condition of employment, said Roth.

St. Luke’s mobilized quickly to get vaccine to as many people as possible when vaccines became available for health care workers in December 2020. The hospital provided a gratitude award for those who decided to get a vaccine through the end of June.

Souza said hospital officials did not feel the need to wait for the Food and Drug Administration to move the vaccine past emergency authorization status—the only difference between emergency authorization use and approval is that more time is required to follow the vaccine. The median time for an FDA vaccine review is 12 months—and that’s fast approaching.

“These are the most scrutinized vaccines in history,” said Souza. “The evidence is overwhelming they’re not only safe but highly effective. Those now getting sick and dying are the unvaccinated. Since our mission is to save lives and since lives are being unnecessarily lost, we don’t feel we have the luxury of waiting any longer to protect our patients and our people.”

Roth said he hopes that St. Luke’s example will help bolster the state’s vaccination rate. Just 51 percent of Idahoans over 18 have received at least one vaccine, compared with more than 67 percent nationally. Only 37 percent of 12- to 64-year-olds in Idaho are fully vaccinated.

And Idaho has one of the highest death rates, ranking 50th among the states, according to WalletHub.

“The vaccination rate in our state is incredibly low,” said Roth. “It’s not acceptable and we need to do everything in our power to encourage others to get vaccinated.”







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