Saint Luke’s Health System Critical Access Region Chief Executive Officer Steve Schieber answered questions during a conference call on September 1st regarding the COVID-19 vaccination mandate announced by Saint Luke’s on August 30th. The health system will require all employees to be fully vaccinated by October 30th.
Wright Memorial Hospital of Trenton and Hedrick Medical Center of Chillicothe are part of the health system. Schieber is also the CEO of both of those hospitals.
The health system reported the mandate was due to Kansas City experiencing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks.
Schieber said Saint Luke’s considered having the vaccination mandate only in some areas served by the health system instead of the whole system. He had meetings with executives at the system level regarding unique aspects of the critical access region and rural facilities, including at Trenton and Chillicothe. He noted there is probably a lower vaccination rate in our area than in a lot of urban areas, which can impact the staffing vaccination rate. Schieber was “very appreciative” of the consideration given to those circumstances.
He reported it appears COVID-19 cases have leveled off in the Trenton area, but there was a surge a few weeks ago. A few months ago, Chillicothe had an increase in cases. Saint Luke’s felt it was the “most responsible decision” to have the vaccination mandate cover the whole system. Schieber commented local patient care is directly impacted by what is happening in the Kansas City area. Other health systems have also announced vaccination mandates.
He did not have the exact number of unvaccinated employees at Saint Luke’s. He explained that, up until now, the health system did not have the full ability to know who was vaccinated because it did not seek that information. Schieber believes about 35% of the systemwide workforce is not currently vaccinated. Some employees could have been vaccinated outside of the system and employee health process. The percentage could also be higher, which Schieber said is likely in regional hospitals. He is still working to get exact percentages.
Employees may request a medical or religious exemption for the vaccination mandate. Schieber explained employees would not be identified for the requests. The requests would have a third-party review by individuals with accountability and an understanding of what is entailed with an exemption. They will be looked at on a case-by-case basis. He said a request for exemption could be denied if, for instance, it involved a medical concern that was truly not one if someone looked at scientific data. He added that religious exemption requests will have to respect religious beliefs.
Employees granted exemptions will be required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing and monitoring.
New employees will be required to be fully vaccinated within 45 days of employment. Schieber said new employees can also request medical or religious exemptions. The health system is still “hiring aggressively,” and he noted there has been little surprise by applicants regarding the mandate.
Schieber reported Saint Luke’s decision process took into consideration how the COVID-19 vaccination mandate would affect staffing. He said it remains a concern, and he acknowledged there has been a challenge across the country involving healthcare worker availability. He hopes all Saint Luke’s employees will stay, as the health system values every employee.
Schieber said he listened to staff, and more than 350 employees participated in a town hall webinar he had on August 31st for the four hospitals he oversees in the region. He answered about 30 pre-submitted questions at the town hall. Some were positive, and some were negative.
The feedback he has received has been “largely positive.” Schieber noted a lot of employees are happy to see the mandate in place and think it is overdue. Others are concerned. He is “pleasantly surprised” by how many employees are thinking about getting a COVID-19 vaccine for the first time and getting into the science and clinical aspects.
Employees can submit questions about the vaccination mandate. Schieber said experts review the questions, and answers are posted on a website for employees. He also encourages employees to talk to their own medical providers.
Vaccination clinics for employees will be on certain days, and Schieber said Saint Luke’s will also work with schedules. He noted the health system will make sure employees have ample time to schedule vaccination before the deadline.
The Food and Drug Administration recently fully approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Schieber explained the system allocation will be structured, so Saint Luke’s will have the appropriate vaccine for the circumstances, which will likely primarily be Pfizer and/or Moderna. It will also be conducive for the employees needs to be vaccinated by October 30th.