COVID-19 vaccine mandates draw protest. Will GOP meetings with hospitals make a difference?

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In response to claims that vaccine mandates at Idaho hospitals and health care systems are infringing on the rights of employees, some Senate Republicans say they are hoping to hold meetings with leaders to avoid there being a further push for legislative action.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Senate Majority Caucus Chair Mark Harris, of Soda Springs, told the Idaho Statesman that the caucus hopes to have “some kind of contact and solution before Sept. 1” to address the concerns of a group of GOP legislators.

The health care systems have set September deadlines for their unvaccinated employees to get the shots.

“What we’re hoping is for the hospitals to look and maybe expand their exemptions, to see what the options are to knock the rough edges of their policies off,” Harris said.

No meetings have yet been scheduled, he added.

Earlier this month, three major health care providers in Idaho — Saint Alphonsus Health System, St. Luke’s Health System and Primary Health Medical Group — announced that they will be requiring their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, adding that to the list of immunizations mandated for employment at their facilities.

The health systems are standing by their decisions and told the Statesman that they’d be happy, in meetings with lawmakers, to explain how vital it is for the safety of patients, the public and all employees to require the vaccinations.

Lawmakers are split over involvement in vaccine decisions

Many state leaders have said they are uncomfortable with government involvement in the decisions of private businesses, but the hospitals’ announcement led Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and others to object. McGeachin has called on the health systems to rescind their mandates and has pushed for the Legislature to reconvene to address them.

But in her own party, there is hardly consensus.

“What we have here is a situation where a business is doing what a business thinks is best for their patients and their business and their employees, and on the other hand we have some employees who don’t want to put a vaccine into their bodies that they don’t think is right,” Harris said. “Both sides think they’re right, and as a Republican caucus, we’re hesitant to poke around and tell businesses what they need to do.”

On July 16, a spokesperson for Gov. Brad Little told the Statesman that a state ban on vaccine mandates for private employers would amount to “government overreach.” On Wednesday, Harris said “most of my caucus would rather not have legislation.”

Harris said House Speaker Scott Bedke, who is running for lieutenant governor, indicated that he would participate in any meetings with the health care providers. “If the governor’s office would like to join in, that would be great,” Harris said.

House Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma did not respond to a request for comment about which House leaders might attend meetings with hospital leaders, should they take place. A spokesperson for the governor also did not respond.

Idaho health care systems stand firm on vaccine requirement

The COVID-19 vaccines have been given to over 186 million Americans and have proved to be safe and effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They have shown to protect against the variants that are causing spikes in cases nationwide, with unvaccinated people the overwhelming majority of new cases.

On July 16, a spokesperson for Saint Al’s, Mark Snider, told the Statesman by email that the hospital “appreciates the opportunity to have discussions with our legislators around the COVID vaccine.”

A spokesperson for St. Luke’s, Taylor Reeves, told the Statesman by email that the hospital would “look forward to participating” in discussions “to share accurate information and create further understanding about the importance of vaccination.”

Though a few people identifying themselves as nurses have attended anti-vaccine protests in recent weeks, health care leaders said at a press conference on Thursday that they did not expect to lose many employees as a result of their decision.

“I have zero concern about not having enough employees because we have a policy that’s been in existence for 10 years,” said Dr. David Peterman, CEO of Primary Health, in reference to longstanding immunization rules that cover, among other things, influenza and tetanus. “There’s no panic. There’s no disruption. This is normal business for us. … We started out at 80% (of employees vaccinated), and it’s rapidly going up.”

Harris said he “hasn’t fully decided yet” whether there are safety concerns about the vaccines, which still are authorized under emergency use, but he knows people who have died of COVID-19.

“COVID to me is real,” Harris said. “The delta variant adds more anxiety to that.”

‘We’ve lost control’ of the COVID-19 pandemic

The debate over vaccine mandates comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly among unvaccinated Idahoans and health care leaders are assuring people that the authorized vaccines are highly effective at preventing infection, illness and death.

In Idaho, vaccination numbers lag significantly behind the national average. Only 45.4% of people 12 and older in the state are fully vaccinated, compared to 57.1% nationally, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

The average number of new daily cases in the state has more than tripled since July 5, and hospital leaders say they are seeing a rapid increase in hospitalizations, including ICU placement, of unvaccinated Idahoans.

“We’ve lost control; we are in a surge,” Dr. Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer for Saint Al’s, said Thursday. “None of our patients in the intensive care unit that have COVID are vaccinated. … The patients who are at risk of losing their lives, it’s because they’re not vaccinated.”

According to data from Health and Welfare, over 98% of cases, hospitalizations and deaths since January have been among people who were not fully vaccinated. That time frame, of course, includes weeks when not all Idahoans had access to the shots.

Hospital leaders say they have seen a doubling of COVID-19 patient activity since the start of this month, which is believed to be linked to the rapid rise across the nation of the delta variant, which makes up 83% of new infections in the U.S., according to the CDC.

Though health officials say it is unclear how widespread the delta variant is in Idaho, state epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said “we do have delta here” at a press conference on Tuesday.

Compounding the problem is a simultaneous rise in non-COVID-19 hospitalizations, which is straining hospitals’ ability to deal with yet another surge in COVID-19 patients, according to Dr. Jim Souza, the chief physician executive for St. Luke’s.

“Over the past two to three months, there’s been this across-the-board multidiagnosis increase in acute hospitalizations for you name it,” Souza said, referring to strokes, heart attacks and other conditions.

Nemerson said Saint Al’s is seeing a similar rise, which he attributed in part to a decrease in social distancing and mask-wearing, which makes residents more likely to get sick with any number of illnesses. He also said many patients have neglected their health during the pandemic, and the extreme heat this summer in Idaho has likely worsened existing problems.

And though the state’s current numbers forebode a difficult few weeks — the test positivity rate climbed to 5.7% the week of July 11-17, the highest it’s been since the week ending April 3 — Souza said that Idahoans can still make the decision to protect themselves against COVID-19.

“To some degree, (the surge) is going to play out now for the next few weeks (based on what) has already happened. But it is not too late to impact what’s going to happen two to three weeks from now by getting a vaccine,” he said. “I have three points to make: get the vaccine, get the vaccine, get the vaccine.”

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