Alaska News

Two major Alaska health care providers say more than 98% of employees are meeting COVID-19 vaccine mandates

Two major Alaska health care providers are reporting high levels of employee compliance with vaccine mandates, refuting predictions of a significant exodus of shot-opposed workers from city officials, including from Anchorage’s mayor.

The operators of both Providence Alaska Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital in Anchorage, and Alaska Native Medical Center on Monday were reporting more than 98% compliance with vaccine requirements.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which operates the Native Medical Center, says more than 98% of about 3,000 employees are in compliance with the vaccine mandate that went into effect Friday.

That includes people who got vaccinated as well those who received medical exceptions, according to spokesperson Shirley Young. Of fewer than 80 requests for exceptions, about half were granted, Young said.

Providence’s policy was to go into effect at the end of the day Monday. As of midday, 98.4% of Providence Alaska’s approximately 4,600 systemwide employees had either been vaccinated or received a religious or medical exemption, according to hospital spokesperson Mikal Canfield, noting the number was still changing. By Tuesday, that number had risen to about 99.3%.

Hospitals administrators told reporters Tuesday that they would not release the exact number of caregivers at Providence Medical Center, Alaska’s largest hospital, who were not in compliance.

“We are grateful that the vast majority of our caregivers have received their vaccinations — an essential step toward keeping our caregivers, patients and communities safe and helping end the pandemic,” Canfield wrote in an email.

Providence isn’t laying people off immediately, he said. Employees who have not gotten vaccinated or received an exemption will be taken off the schedule and placed on a 30-day unpaid administrative leave.

“We wanted to make certain that (employees) had good, reliable information,” said Florian Borowski, director of human resources at Providence Alaska Medical Center, when asked why the employees were put on leave. “We wanted to make certain they had the time to get that.”

Providence’s mandate for employees was announced in August. A small number of employees have already resigned as a result of the policy, Borowski said.

Alaska Regional Hospital is not currently requiring its employees get vaccinated. A spokesperson did not respond to a request for information about vaccination rates among workers.

Several Alaska hospitals have already enacted mandates. Fairbanks Memorial Hospital reported 11 employees out of 1,850 left jobs over vaccine requirements. Out of nearly 500 employees at PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center and associated clinics, nine were deemed not compliant after being placed on leave, a spokesperson there said Monday.

The Biden Administration last month announced plans to require vaccinations for health care workers, federal employees, and private businesses with more than 100 workers. Specific guidelines will be issued this month.

About 41% of hospitals nationwide - roughly 2,570 facilities - have some sort of vaccine mandate, according to data collected by the American Hospital Association and reported by the Washington Post.

Most health care systems that require vaccination have touted widespread compliance, according to the Post. Administrators at some of the nation’s largest hospital systems report very high vaccination rates they attributed to the requirement as well as a drop in coronavirus infections and sick leaves.

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson, who has publicly stated his opposition to hospital vaccine requirements, in an interview last month said he believed up to 20% to 30% of employees would lose their jobs over their opposition to vaccination requirements at hospitals such as Providence and Alaska Native Medical Center.

Bronson cited anecdotal evidence, including news reports of staff resigning in other states over vaccine mandates as well as testimony during an invitation-only listening session for health care workers opposed to mandates hosted by Assembly member Jamie Allard. Municipal human resources director Niki Tshibaka triggered a standing ovation at one point when he asked if the crowd opposed mandates.

“They’ve been here for a year and a half for us, doing the toughest work probably you can imagine in modern society. And now we’re going to take, possibly 20 or 30% of them, and cast them aside,” Bronson said in an interview last month. “They lose the ability to provide for their kids. Lose the ability to pay their bills because they believe something. And it seems to me, no one except me is listening to them in this city.”

Asked for a response to the new information about vaccine mandates, a spokesperson for the mayor said while the number of job losses is not in the 20% to 30% range, they are clearly happening.

Bronson has heard from “dozens” of medical professionals including nurses and surgery technicians at Providence and ANTHC facilities who say they will lose their jobs if they don’t get vaccinated, spokesperson Corey Allen Young said Monday.

“Obviously he wants to hear from the community,” Young said. “As the mayor, his job is to make sure everybody is treated fairly.”

[Are Alaska’s hospitals short-staffed over COVID-19 vaccination mandates? Not yet.]

Alaska health care workers have faced hostility and threats from COVID-19 patients and others. Some health care workers and pharmacy employees have stopped asking about vaccination status due to hostile responses.

COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and millions of people have been vaccinated safely, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Serious adverse events after vaccination are rare; for example, severe allergic reactions occur in about two to five people per 1 million vaccinated in the U.S.

Other sectors beyond hospitals are taking different approaches to vaccine requirements.

In the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities, the decision are being made at the level of individual facilities, said Jeannie Monk, senior vice president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. Overall, vaccination rates among the state’s nursing home staff are above the national average.

Those connected to Providence, which runs two of the state’s largest nursing homes, require the vaccine for staff, Monk said. Most of the larger facilities as well as tribal facilities are requiring staff vaccinations.

Smaller facilities and the state-run Pioneer Homes are not, she said.

Some facilities have vaccination rates of 70% and 80% compliance, Monk said, while others are lower. Rates tend to mirror the community where they’re located.

The Biden administration said they would mandate vaccines for all healthcare workers at facilities that receive Medicaid and Medicare funding, but details like when it’s set to take effect and if there are exemptions, have yet to be released.

Meanwhile, officials at the University of Alaska system announced Monday they will not require vaccinations for faculty, staff and students at this time at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Interim UA president Pat Pitney said in a statement that the incoming federal requirements mean it makes sense to wait before putting any requirements in place.

“As we expect a broad vaccine mandate to eventually be implemented, if you are not already vaccinated, now is a good time to do so,” Pitney wrote.

Pitney told reporters in a call Monday that some people, mostly students and some staff disagree with a vaccine requirement though that “didn’t weigh in largely to the factors here, but it does exist and it would be something we would have to work with.”

She thought the number of people who would leave due to a vaccination requirement would be much smaller than what they’ve heard anecdotally.

The request for a vaccination requirement at UAF stemmed from the school’s faculty, staff and student governance bodies as well as an emphasis on access to in-person learning, said Chancellor Dan White. He said the school would continue applying narrowly-focused vaccine requirements around campus like those for residential students and athletes.

“All that president Pitney has done is said, ‘Please continue to do that practice,’ ” White said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the 4,600 either vaccinated or exempted employees at Providence Alaska Medical Center. They are employees of the Providence Alaska throughout the state.

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