A major health care provider in Alaska, Providence Health and Services, said Friday its staff will soon be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or agree to additional safety measures.
The announcement comes as hospitals across the state try to ensure more employees to get the vaccine, as rapid community spread of COVID-19, driven by the more contagious delta variant, drives up hospitalizations in Alaska — mostly among people who are unvaccinated.
Those factors contributed to Providence’s decision, the organization said in a statement. Staff will have until Sept. 30 to comply with the new policy.
“We’re fortunate to have such effective vaccinations that were developed in a relatively short period of time, and we need to make use of that tool,” Dr. Michael Bernstein, Providence’s chief medical officer, said when asked why the decision was made.
“Our mission is to serve the poor and the vulnerable, and to do that most effectively, we need to do it as safely as possible, and this is what is needed to do that,” he said.
Providence Alaska employs nearly 5,000 people in Alaska, and Bernstein said the current vaccination rate among staff was just over 68% statewide.
The details of the policy were still being worked out, Bernstein said — but certain medical and religious exemptions would be made for staff, who may be required to submit to additional testing and educational protocols.
“We’re basically saying that the vaccination is a requirement,” Bernstein said. “But we can’t force people to be vaccinated, so if they still choose not to be vaccinated, there will be additional requirements. And those haven’t been defined in detail yet.”
Providence is not the first health care provider in Alaska to announce a vaccine mandate for its staff.
PeaceHealth Ketchikan Hospital is also requiring vaccinations for employees starting Aug. 31, unless they have a qualifying medical exemption. And last month, two of Alaska’s largest tribal health organizations, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Southcentral Foundation, both in Anchorage, both announced that their staff would be required to get vaccinated by Oct. 15.
At ANTHC, most staff have already gotten vaccinated — at least 80%, a spokesperson said. But some staff have expressed frustration and anger at being required to get the shot or risk losing their jobs.
A Thursday evening protest organized outside of the consortium’s main campus in Anchorage drew a large crowd, made up staff and others, waving signs with messages like, “where there is a risk, there must be a choice,” and “consent matters.” Many passing cars honked in support.
In the crowd was Alexandra Burril, a nurse who works in Anchorage but asked that her employer not be identified in this story. Burril carried a sign that said, “I stand for medical freedom.”
“I think that every single person has a right to choose what they do for their own health,” Burril said. “It should not be just because you work in health care, you lose that right.”
Burril isn’t vaccinated, which she said it was a personal choice she made based on her own assessment of the risks and benefits. She said she respects other people’s reasons for getting vaccinated, but doesn’t think it should be mandated by an employer.
In a statement released Friday, ANTHC President Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson said that while the organization “Respect(s) the rights of those who chose to demonstrate yesterday and thank them for doing so respectfully, we are committed to providing a vaccinated work force to protect our patients, staff, and our communities.”
Davidson added that the decision to mandate vaccines of staff “was not made lightly.”
”We consulted with medical providers and reviewed data that supports the known effectiveness and safety of the vaccines,” she said. “We also understand some may make a personal choice to remain unprotected and work elsewhere.”
Facing the prospect of resistance from some employees and others in the community, other hospitals across the state are also grappling with whether to require vaccinations of its staff.
That conversation is happening in Fairbanks, which has also recently started to see an uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations, too.
“We believe in the vaccine,” said Dr. Angelique Ramirez, chief medical officer with Foundation Health Partners which manages the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. “But there is some concern about mandating it, and whether that’s the right approach,” she said.
Ramirez said she thought upcoming decisions by the federal Food and Drug Administration to authorize the vaccines beyond emergency use would lead to higher vaccination rates in Fairbanks.
“I hear from people on a regular basis that they’re uncomfortable and hesitant because of that label of an emergency use authorization. So I believe that once that label is gone, we will see more of an uptick.”
Derotha Ferraro, hospital spokesperson with South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, said Friday that beginning in July, the southern Kenai Peninsula has been experiencing its largest COVID-19 spike since the pandemic began — which has lead to a spike in hospitalizations, too.
In June, the hospital had four COVID-19 patients. In July, it had ten.
“This is the most number of people we’ve had hospitalized at any given time in the course of the pandemic,” said Ferraro.
She said 65% of hospital employees who interact with patients are vaccinated, and that conversations about whether or not to require the shot have been ongoing.
“Will it happen, I do not know,” she said — the hospital was “exploring all avenues.”
“We’re looking at other employers, we’re looking at other hospitals, we’re looking at best practice recommendations, and we’re talking to employees,” she said.