REGIONAL—Avera Health recently became the third health system with a N’West Iowa presence to require its workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Sioux Falls, SD-based system announced Tuesday, Sept. 7, that its physicians, employees and volunteers will need to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Dec. 1.

The policy also includes students rotating in Avera facilities, contracted workers and vendors. The health system will consider exemptions for employees with medical conditions and sincerely held religious beliefs that conflict with getting the vaccine.

Exempted employees will be required to wear appropriate personal protective equipment and comply with regular COVID-19 testing and other preventive measures.

“As a health-care ministry, Avera is called upon to provide a safe and protective environment for our patients, their families and our employees. This is consistent with our mission and values,” said Dr. David Erickson, Avera’s chief medical and innovation officer during a virtual news conference held the day of the announcement.

He added that Avera has long required its workers to get vaccinated against other diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, varicella and influenza.

Other factors that played into the decision for the vaccine requirement were the increase in COVID-19 cases recently due to the spread of the Delta variant as well as the Pfizer vaccine receiving full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Erickson also noted how the majority of Avera patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were unvaccinated.

Kim Jensen, Avera’s chief human resources officer, spoke about what would happen for employees who do not receive the vaccine and do not qualify for an exemption.

“Our initial focus will be on coaching and education for those employees, which in turn follows our progressive performance process. This Dec. 1 deadline gives employees adequate time to get this vaccine,” Jensen said.

During the period of coaching and education for employees hesitant about getting vaccinated, Jensen said Avera does not anticipate suspending or firing such employees.

Earlier this year, Avera distributed a survey to its employees to get their thoughts on a vaccine requirement. The majority responded by saying they would support such a move.

At the time of the news conference, Erickson said about 82 percent of Avera’s physicians and advanced practice providers already were vaccinated against COVID-19 and about 71 percent of all employees had received the vaccine.

There are four hospitals in N’West Iowa that are affiliated with Avera: Avera Merrill Pioneer Hospital in Rock Rapids, Hegg Health Center in Rock Valley, Osceola Regional Health Center in Sibley and Sioux Center Health.

Craig Hohn, CEO of Avera Merrill Pioneer Hospital, echoed Erickson’s comment regarding the decision to have Avera workers get vaccinated.

“The most effective thing people can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to get vaccinated,” Hohn said.

Hegg Health chief executive officer Glenn Zevenbergen said the facility still is evaluating when and if to require its workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He noted President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that health-care workers in hospitals, clinics and other facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid payments will be required to get the COVID-19 inoculation.

“The actual rules behind the Biden administration’s proclamation including any potential exemptions have yet to be written, so accordingly a decision will be made when all of the information is in hand,” Zevenbergen said.

The hospital did not have numbers of how many employees have received the vaccine so far.

Casey Schafer, marketing specialist for Osceola Regional Health Center, said the Sibley hospital likewise is reviewing the federal vaccine requirements to determine how the facility should proceed. She added that a “significant number” of employees had already received the COVID-19 vaccine.