Amid protests, will Idaho hospitals stand firm on COVID-19 vaccine mandates?

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Despite pressure from some Republican state officials and multiple protests from the anti-vaccine crowd, Treasure Valley health care systems are sticking with requirements announced this month that all employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by September.

St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus, two of the largest employers in the state, both announced on July 8 that they would begin requiring hospital employees and contractors to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk termination. Primary Health, a major provider in Southwest Idaho, also made the same announcement on July 8.

COVID-19 case numbers are rising in Idaho among the unvaccinated, and health leaders are imploring more people to get the shots that have proven safe and effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Daily average case numbers have nearly tripled since July 5, and the number of COVID-19 ICU patients has doubled since early this month, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The rise coincides with the spread of a more infectious strain of the virus, known as the delta variant, that now makes up a large majority of cases nationwide, according to the CDC.

“All of the key COVID-19 items we watch closely are now headed in the wrong direction,” Dave Jeppesen, IDHW director, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Last week, hundreds of anti-vaccine protesters gathered at the Idaho Statehouse to oppose the hospitals’ mandates, with some calling on the Legislature to intervene. Several attendees, some of whom said they were nurses at hospitals that are mandating vaccines, said they would risk being fired instead of receiving one of the vaccines, which have been delivered to over 186 million Americans.

Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin has led the charge and asked hospitals to suspend their mandates, while Senate Republicans say they want to avoid legislation and instead hold “a series of meetings” with hospital leaders about the topic.

“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,” Mark Harris, the Senate majority caucus chair, told the Idaho Statesman by phone.

But all three providers say they are staying the course with their new requirements, which adds the COVID-19 vaccine to a list of mandated immunizations for employees.

In an email to the Statesman, a spokesperson for St. Luke’s said the hospital’s Sept. 1 deadline is still in place.

“Safety is a top priority for St. Luke’s, as is our obligation and commitment to protect our staff, patients and communities from vaccine-preventable disease,” Taylor Reeves said. “We are confident in our decision to add the COVID-19 vaccine to our list of required immunizations.”

Reeves added that St. Luke’s had made “meaningful progress” in its efforts to vaccinate staff, with more than 77% of workers fully vaccinated.

As with other vaccines, providers will allow religious or other exemptions. During the most recent flu season, Reeves said that less than 2% of St. Luke’s employees “requested and received” an influenza vaccine exemption.

Saint Al’s, which was the first major provider in the Treasure Valley to announce the requirement, is expecting all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 21, according to a spokesperson.

“Getting the COVID vaccine is the right thing for every adult and child that qualifies,” Dr. Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer for Saint Alphonsus Health System, said in a July 8 release.

A spokesperson for Primary Health declined to comment for this story but said that all employees are still expected to be vaccinated by Sept. 9.

In an email on July 16, a spokesperson for Gov. Brad Little, Marissa Morrison Hyer, told the Statesman that state intervention in the hospitals’ relationship with employees would amount to “government overreach.”

At Tuesday’s press conference, state officials emphasized the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, which they said are becoming even more vital as case numbers rise.

“We’re hoping that Idahoans understand this as a warning that we do have delta here, we do have the numbers increasing,” said Dr. Christine Hahn, the state’s epidemiologist. “We urge you, as the director said, to consider vaccination now. We do anticipate we’ll continue to see numbers rise, we’ll continue to see more people in the hospital because we know this variant is starting to spread.”

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