Many Idaho health care workers face a choice: get the COVID shot or leave your job

The announcements went out to their workforces on Thursday

By: - July 8, 2021 9:29 am
health care provider provides COVID vaccination

A health care provider administers the COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic at St. Luke’s. (Courtesy of St. Luke’s Health System)

Almost all of the Boise area’s largest health care employers on Thursday said they’ll require staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by fall.

Anywhere from to 22% to 28% of the health care organizations’ staff haven’t gotten a coronavirus vaccine. Based on the size of their workforces, that means thousands of health care workers must now choose whether to leave their jobs or join the 725,147 Idahoans who have received a COVID-19 vaccination.

The requirements are legal and have been rolled out across the U.S., facing resistance from some workers who don’t want to take the vaccine. They come as highly infectious variants, such as the delta variant, are spreading in the U.S.

The employers will allow religious or medical exemptions, they said.

Saint Al’s gives workers until September to get COVID shots

Saint Alphonsus Health System notified its staff Thursday morning that it will require the coronavirus vaccines in accordance with the policy of its parent organization, Michigan-based Trinity Health. An estimated 72% of the health system’s employees are vaccinated at this point, according to spokesperson Mark Snider.

“Safety is one of our core values, and because of our commitment to providing safe care, ensuring our colleagues and providers are vaccinated is what is required at this time,” Odette Bolano, president and CEO of Saint Alphonsus Health System, said in a news release announcing the policy. “We must trust the science and live up to our core values.”

The requirement won’t apply to Saint Al’s facilities in Oregon, where the law prohibits employers from requiring vaccines in the health care industry, according to the release.

The staggered deadlines for Saint Al’s staff to have received their vaccines begin in August, for management, the health system’s staff were told Thursday morning. Others including medical staff, vendors and contractors, volunteers and students will need to have received their vaccines by Sept. 21.

Employees will lose their jobs if they do not get the COVID-19 vaccine or have an approved religious or medical exemption by the deadline, according to an FAQ provided to staff.

About 75% of the people working in hospitals that belong to the Trinity organization have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Saint Alphonsus. Trinity, and Saint Al’s, are hoping to close the gap to protect their staff, patients and the community, they said.

The announcement noted that 99% of deaths from COVID-19 are now among people who haven’t been vaccinated.

“Just as our colleagues are required to receive annual flu vaccines to work in our facilities, we know that vaccination is the single most effective tool in preventing the transmission of COVID, keeping our facilities COVID-free, and saving lives,” Dr. Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer for Saint Alphonsus Health System, said in the news release.

St. Luke’s adds COVID vaccine to its required immunizations list

The state’s largest health system, St. Luke’s, told its staff on Thursday that it will mandate a COVID-19 vaccine for all staff who are eligible to get it.

“In consideration of Idaho’s low rate of COVID-19 vaccination, the emergence and rapid spread of the Delta variant, the loosening of public health restrictions on masking and gatherings, as well as plans to return to full capacity for indoor venues, schools and public gatherings in the fall, St. Luke’s leadership believes this is the right time” to start requiring the vaccines, said a news release from St. Luke’s.

The deadline will be Sept. 1 for all employees, health care providers, contractors, students and volunteers to have received at least their first dose of vaccine, it said.

“We’ve made meaningful progress with more than 77% of our staff members and providers across the health system fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But we’re still not where we need to be — as an organization or as a state,” CEO Chris Roth said in a letter to staff on Thursday.

Protecting its staff, its patients and the community from vaccine-preventable diseases is one of the health system’s obligations, he said.

One of Idaho’s largest urgent care groups sets a Sept. 9 vaccine deadline

Primary Health Medical Group will require all staff to be vaccinated by Sept. 9. About 78% of its employees have received COVID-19 vaccines, according to spokesperson Chryssa Rich.

The physician-owned group that operates clinics throughout the Treasure Valley has vaccinated more than 300,000 people for COVID-19, according to a letter its CEO Dr. David Peterman sent out to Primary Health employees Thursday morning.

“We understand the enormity of this decision and are putting the mandate in place based on the current medical information which has overwhelmingly shown the effectiveness of the vaccines and the rare occurrence of very few serious side effects,” the letter said. “Our highest priority is to keep our clinics safe for all our patients and our employees. We know that in the fall and winter thousands of patients will come to PHMG clinics with many different viral illnesses. The schools will be opening with most of the children not vaccinated for coronavirus. We cannot go through another year like last where 30% of our employees at times were out with illness and clinics had to be closed. We need to be available for our patients.”

Primary Health will consider religious and medical exemptions, which it has done for its other immunization requirements for the past 10 years, the letter said.

“Every employee at PHMG has done an outstanding job over the past 18 months,” Peterman’s letter said. “I cannot express enough how proud I am to be associated with all of you. You have literally saved thousands of lives. Taking the next step to vaccinate all our employees will keep us on the path of providing quality care to all our patients in a safe, healthy environment.”

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, radio journalism, data visualization and much more.