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Essentia joins health organizations requiring vaccine for employees

Employees of Essentia Health must have received the first dose of vaccine by Oct. 1 and the second dose in a two-shot series by Nov. 1 as a condition of employment. Essentia is the latest in a growing list of health providers to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for staff.

Essentia Health's Fargo campus at 3000 32nd Ave. S. Forum file photo
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FARGO — Essentia Health is joining the growing list of health systems that are requiring employees to be vaccinated to protect against COVID-19 as the highly transmissible delta variant continues to spread.

Essentia announced on Wednesday, Aug. 4, that all of its 13,800 employees, including 2,400 in the region serving Fargo, must have their first vaccine dose by Oct. 1 and their second in a two-dose series by Nov. 1.

Dr. William Heegaard, president of Essentia’s west region, called the step an “important and impactful decision” that was made after reviewing medical literature, epidemiological studies and risk assessments.

“We are committed to the safety of our patients and the safety of our employees,” he said. “This will apply to all employees, including remote workers, volunteers, students” and anyone who is involved in serving patients.

“The vaccination process provides the greatest protection,” Heegaard said, noting that the mandate will apply to those who previously were infected by the coronavirus. “We at this point are not making any exceptions for natural immunity.”

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Exceptions will be made, however, for medical reasons, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, or for religious reasons. Those exemptions have applied to Essentia’s long-standing flu vaccine requirement for employees.

Essentia is joining other health systems in adopting a vaccine mandate for employees, including Sanford Health, Mayo, Fairview and Allina.

“No one’s taking it lightly,” Heegaard said, predicting that other health providers will follow suit.

As of mid-March, the latest tally available, 87% of Essentia physicians had been vaccinated, along with 84% of advanced practitioners, and 70% of other employees.

“That’s a good percentage,” Heegaard said, adding that he is confident Essentia will be able to close the gap.

It’s possible that some employees will elect to resign rather than be vaccinated, Heegaard said, based on its experience requiring flu shots. “We know that some people may leave,” he said. “We are committed to the safety of our patients.”

Sanford announced on July 22 that all employees must be vaccinated by Nov. 1 or risk losing their job.

Sanford employees who are not vaccinated by Nov. 1 will be placed on suspension for 60 days. At the end of the suspension, any employees who remain unvaccinated will be considered to have voluntarily resigned. Sanford will allow certain exemptions for medical or religious reasons.

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“Nothing is more important to our purpose as caregivers than ensuring a safe environment for employees and those who seek our care,” said Dr. Doug Griffin, a Sanford vice president and medical officer. “This is the right thing to do for our people and for our patients and residents.”

The decision to require vaccination to protect against COVID-19 was made carefully, Griffin said, and included feedback from patients and residents.

“We’ve required the flu vaccine for many years and this is a natural next step to further protect patients and staff from a dangerous virus,” Griffin said.

Last week, the state of California became the first in the nation to require that all state employees show proof of vaccination or submit to weekly testing. The vaccine requirement also applies to all healthcare workers and those who work in “high-risk congregate settings.”

Federal courts have upheld hospital vaccine mandates for employees, including a case in Houston earlier this year.

Dr. Bill Heegaard.jpg
Dr. Bill Heegaard is president at Essentia Health-West.

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