Employees at Allen County Regional Hospital will be required to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 30, Saint Luke’s Health System announced earlier this week.
It’s not clear exactly how many local employees will be affected by the mandate. About 35% of employees throughout Saint Luke’s remain unvaccinated, said Elmore Patterson, CEO for ACRH and Anderson County Hospital in Garnett.
The mandate applies to all employees in the Saint Luke’s system.
The rising number of cases caused by the delta variant, and the lack of available beds, especially intensive care unit (ICU) beds, warrant the action, said Patterson and Steve Schieber, CEO, Critical Access Region at Saint Luke’s.
“It’s caused a big impact not just to Allen and Anderson county hospitals, but also to a lot of small hospitals in trying to get transferred,” Patterson said.
“When we have a lot of people who are sick, it’s our responsibility to take care of our community, take care of our patients, take care of our employees. Science has said vaccines work, and we feel like the mandate for everyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine is appropriate at this time. I think it’s very important.”
Hospital administrators plan to offer the Pfizer vaccine as part of a clinic for employees in September, with the second dose in October. Employees can also obtain vaccines through other health care providers or pharmacies.
Some exceptions will be made for religious or medical reasons. Saint Luke’s will require a letter signed by a member of the clergy or health care provider, and will review possible exemptions on a case-by-case basis.
Any employee who refuses to be vaccinated and is not granted an exemption will face termination.
After the Pfizer vaccine received full FDA approval last week, verifying its safety, it cleared the way for employers to require vaccination. Many health care facilities, including in the local region, have taken similar action.
Since the mandate was announced, Saint Luke’s administrators have increased efforts to educate employees on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, Schieber said.
“It’s really causing people to sit down and look at the scientific facts,” he said. “A lot of the fear and concerns are being addressed, and they’re becoming much more comfortable with the vaccinations.”
“We want to make sure we keep every employee. That’s why we’re trying to educate. We want to make sure they have the proper knowledge in front of them,” Patterson added.
The mandate also should give peace of mind to patients, families and employees who may be concerned about the vaccination status of the staff.
“A lot of the feedback I’m receiving is positive, not only from coworkers but from the public, the patients and families. That’s been a concern of theirs,” Schieber said. “We’ve been very diligent in ensuring our employees have the proper PPE (personal protection equipment) and masking and other aspects. That’s just another layer of protection that ensures our community feels safe when they come into our facilities.”
THE INCREASE in COVID cases makes it difficult to transfer patients who need a greater degree of care than ACRH can provide, Patterson said.
Intensive care units across the region and across the country are filled with COVID patients who have not been vaccinated. Various reports show between 85% to 99% of COVID patients in ICU are unvaccinated. The CDC reports unvaccinated people are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who are fully vaccinated.
That problem doesn’t affect just COVID patients, Patterson stressed. Hospital staff can’t find beds for patients who have been injured in an accident, such as a car wreck, or who have suffered a medical emergency such as a heart attack or stroke.
“We’ve had people in the emergency room over 24 hours looking to transfer to an ICU bed in Kansas City or Wichita,” he said. “Not only is that difficult on the care providers, it’s difficult on patients and their family members. We’re trying to get them somewhere to save their lives.”
Vaccinations will reduce that problem by reducing hospitalizations for COVID-19, he said.
ALLEN County’s vaccination rate, as a whole, remains below state and national averages.
Just 44.02% of eligible county residents have been fully vaccinated, and 48.98% have received at least one dose.
In Kansas, 45.8% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated. In the U.S., that number is 53%.
Allen County’s positive COVID-19 cases have remained elevated, though they’ve gone up and down in recent weeks.
This week, 46 active cases have been reported by the Southeast Kansas Multi-County Health Department. Last week, there were 59 cases. On Aug. 16, it was 47; on Aug. 5 it was 57. Two months earlier, on June 1, there were no positive cases in the county.
The county’s total number of cases since the pandemic began is 1,572 with 22 deaths. Two of the deaths were reported in the past week, on Aug. 23 and 25. Prior to that, the county’s most recent COVID-related death was on May 13.