Last edited 7 a.m., July 12, 2021
Mercy Springfield Communities became the first health care system in southwest Missouri to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for employees.
Announced at a July 7 news conference, the policy requires all employees to be fully vaccinated by the end of September, said Mercy Hospital Springfield President Brent Hubbard.
“The vaccines have been deemed safe and effective,” he said, noting the health care system wants to lead by example.
Hubbard said 75% of Mercy employees across its four-state footprint are currently vaccinated. A local percentage was not made available. He said 123 workers in the area were currently on quarantine due to the coronavirus.
Mercy Springfield Communities is the second-largest local employer, according to Springfield Business Journal list research. The health care system reported 9,181 local employees for SBJ’s list of the area’s largest employers, published in July 2020.
At the news conference, Hubbard acknowledged the health care industry is facing worker shortages similar to other businesses, but that the vaccine mandate is the right thing to do, even if some employees question the policy.
“It’s an investment in our co-workers,” he said of the policy. “As a health care provider, we should expect that of ourselves.”
There will be exemptions, he said, for medical and religious reasons. Additionally, the health care system allows employees to utilize paid time off to deal with symptoms from the vaccine. Employees without exemptions who fail to comply by the deadline could be terminated, Hubbard added.
At industry peer CoxHealth, a vaccination requirement is not currently in place, according to a statement from the health care system posted on social media after Mercy went public with its policy change.
“COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be highly efficacious and safe, can save lives and end this pandemic. We strongly advocate for their use,” the statement reads. “However, we understand that many in our community are hesitant to become vaccinated, including some employees.”
The statement indicated the removal of the federal emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 vaccine would inform policy decisions moving forward.
“We are hopeful that those that are hesitant may gain further confidence in the vaccine if full approval is granted,” the statement reads.
At CoxHealth, 63% of employees are vaccinated, said spokesperson Kaitlyn McConnell, noting the rate is 92% for physicians. As of July 6, roughly 90 CoxHealth employees were off for COVID-19 purposes, including quarantine and taking care of family affected by the virus, she said.
Officials at both health care systems in recent weeks have cited the delta variant of COVID-19 for a recent increase in cases in southwest Missouri.
Dr. William Sistrunk, a Mercy infectious disease specialist, said at the news conference the delta variant is 60% more contagious than the original virus.
“We don’t know why we’re seeing such a high rate of the delta variant in southwest Missouri,” he said, noting the variant has accounted for as high as 90% of all new local cases in recent days.
“This is not something that we’re going to get over with quickly. Mercy’s in this for the long haul. We’re going to be seeing COVID for many, many more months – if not years to come.”
As of July 6, Greene County’s seven-day average for cases was 143, with 189 hospitalized and 39% of the eligible population fully vaccinated, according to the Springfield-Greene County Health Department’s COVID-19 dashboard. The Health Department additionally reported 17 new COVID-19 deaths in the county for the June 21-July 4 reporting period. That’s the highest number since late January.
Aaron Schekorra, public health information administrator for the Health Department, said the organization is not currently considering mandating vaccines for its employees. He said 90% of the Health Department’s staff is fully vaccinated, and those who have chosen not to must continue masking while at work.
Separately, Springfield Public Schools announced all students and staff would be required to again wear face masks during the summer session. The policy is in place through month’s end, at which time officials will determine if an extension is needed, according to a news release.
“In our ongoing evaluation of pandemic-related data, and in anticipation of a continued surge related to holiday gatherings over the July 4 holiday, we recommended that SPS implement these additional steps through the end of July,” said Katie Towns, interim director of the Health Department, in the release. “We appreciate our partnership with SPS and their willingness to adapt their protocols to best serve the public as positive cases, hospitalizations and related deaths continue to increase.
“It is our hope that the public will take this opportunity to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others from preventable illness.”
Mercy isn’t the only health care system in Missouri to require the vaccine. BJC HealthCare, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital also have made announcements.
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