ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — UnityPoint Health announced on Thursday, August 5 that they will be requiring all employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The three-state health system said its more than 33,000 team members will have until November 1, 2021 to get their shot. Team members who are not vaccinated by November 1 will be asked to voluntarily resign or be fired.
The mandate applies to all staff members, regardless of if they work directly with patients or not. UnityPoint Health says this includes traveling nurses, paramedics, and even vendors delivering supplies to the hospitals.
Exemptions can be requested for medical or religious reasons, which is consistent with the health system’s practice for other required vaccines.
While pregnant team members are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated, they can be granted a temporary deferral.
"It's a decision that did not come lightly," said UnityPoint Health - Trinity's Chief Medial Officer, Dr. Toyosi Olutade. "In the United States we have 350 million doses already administered. Worldwide, we have over 4 billion doses. So it is very well studied. It's very safe. And it's very effective. This is the best weapon we have to fight this pandemic."
Dr. Olutade says among the system's 33,000 employees, 39% are still unvaccinated. Now, he says there's worries about how that group will impact the 61% that did get the shot.
"It's challenging for the 60+ percent of our staff that is vaccinated to know that when they are working right now, with the Delta variant, they have more than a third of their colleagues who aren't vaccinated," he said. "So our team members are not necessarily safe, our patients aren't safe."
He adds that with the new Delta strain, it's likely not if, but when employees catch Covid-19. Last winter, Dr. Olutade pleaded with community members to mask up and take precautions, since the majority of hospital staff that were out, sick from Covid-19, caught the virus during their off-hours, out in the community.
When workers are home sick, any time off of work they need to quarantine and recover, places a strain on the rest of the staff.
"So you can see how the fact that the unvaccinated population could potentially actually trigger a vicious cycle, an additional strain on the rest of the health system," he said.
Last winter, UnityPoint Health was running out of beds and staff, during the height of the pandemic. At one point, before vaccinations began, over 100 staff members were out with the sickness, leaving a stripped-down staff to try and deal with overwhelming patient numbers.
"Staff that have been working for the past 18 months are very tired. Seeing this surge come up again, it's almost back-breaking. And we do not want that. So we need to be proactive," said Dr. Olutade.
He says there's also an incredibly large risk for patients themselves.
"Protecting our patients really comes first and foremost, and we do not know who what kind of patient will walk into our doors. If it's someone that has cancer, someone that has had an organ transplant, someone that has diabetes or heart disease, it is imperative for us to be prepared to take care of them in a safe way," said Dr. Olutade. "I don't want the patient to be fighting odf their cancer and also fighting off the fear that they may get infected if they come to us."
This mandate is no different from other vaccination requirements that the hospital holds, he argues.
"The Covid-19 vaccine is one of our best resources now. If you've been waiting, I just want you to consider the fact that there have been 350 million doses administered in this country, and over 4 billion doses administered worldwide. It's more studied than any other vaccine in the history of vaccinations."
Currently, Dr. Olutade says UnityPoint has 14 patients hospitalized with Covid-19. All but one, he says, are not vaccinated. The one that is vaccinated has underlying health conditions that made them immunosuppressed.
He also stressed that the only patients in the ICU with Covid-19 are people who have not gotten the shot.
“After thoughtful consideration, we believe this vaccination requirement will help keep our team members, patients and communities as healthy as possible, so we can focus on what we do best—delivering exceptional care to those we serve,” said Clay Holderman, President and CEO of UnityPoint Health.
UnityPoint Health said it has made it a priority since December 2020 to educate its team members about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and that the vaccine is highly effective in preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death.
"The continued wave of infections throughout the country make it clear we are not done fighting this pandemic, which means more people need to get vaccinated, especially before an anticipated increase of respiratory illnesses this fall,” said Dr. Dave Williams, Chief Clinical Officer of UnityPoint Health.
A COVID-19 vaccine requirement is strongly supported by the American Hospital Association, American Nurses Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Association of American Medical Colleges and National Association for Home Care and Hospice.