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BJC HealthCare, Washington U announce COVID-19 vaccine requirements for employees

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BJC begins vaccinating frontline caregivers

A vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine sits awaiting the next recipient on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, at the Washington University School of Medicine campus in St. Louis as BJC began the first round of vaccinations for frontline health care workers. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — BJC HealthCare and Washington University, two of the region’s largest employers, on Tuesday announced that both institutions will require employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by fall.

With demand for the vaccines waning in Missouri, and the state’s immunization rate well behind the national average, Tuesday’s announcements underscore health care providers’ urgency to vaccinate as many people as possible over the summer months, and may lead other employers down a similar path in months to come.

Herb Kuhn, president and CEO of the Missouri Hospital Association, said Tuesday that hospitals throughout the state are evaluating COVID-19 vaccine requirements. “Missouri’s hospital community has seen COVID-19’s devastation in lives and health lost,” Kuhn said in a statement. “It is appropriate that we lead in vaccination within our organizations.”

The region’s three other major health systems — SSM Health, Mercy and St. Luke’s Hospital — had not instituted vaccine requirements for employees as of Tuesday, but said they were discussing the issue.

BJC will require employees to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 15. Washington U. said all faculty, staff and trainees must be vaccinated by Aug. 30.

BJC leaders have been weighing the possibility of such a requirement “ever since the probability of a vaccine became apparent,” said Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Clay Dunagan. He said the health system’s mid-September deadline was set in anticipation of the coming flu season. The colder, dryer conditions of fall and winter have historically allowed other viruses to spread more easily.

Dunagan said BJC understands some will be hesitant to get the vaccine.

“It’s not lost on me that this is a tough decision for many people,” he said.

BJC already requires the whooping cough, measles, and chickenpox vaccines for employees, and the annual flu shot.

Some have argued that COVID-19 vaccines cannot be required in the same way as other vaccines because they do not have final approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but rather they are available under emergency use authorization. But the shots have also been tested in large, clinical trials, and have been administered to nearly 175 million people in the U.S. alone.

As of last year, BJC employed 29,300 in the St. Louis area. The system has 15 hospitals, and spans the greater metropolitan area, Southern Illinois and southeast Missouri.

So far, 75% of employees have been vaccinated, BJC President and CEO Rich Liekweg said Tuesday.

“As a health care provider, major employer and a community leader, BJC wants to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep our patients, our valued workforce, and our communities safe,” Liekweg said in a statement. “The available vaccines are among the most effective and safest ever developed.”

Those who do not get vaccinated could face disciplinary action, said Jackie Tischler, BJC’s senior vice president and chief people officer. The requirement applies to all contractors, temporary staff, and for employees who work remotely.

The Houston Methodist Hospital system was the first major U.S. health care system to institute a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for employees. Employees filed a lawsuit over the vaccine mandate, which was recently dismissed by a federal judge.

Still, most U.S. employers don’t plan to require vaccinations before returning to work, said the advisory firm Willis Towers Watson. A company survey found that 72% of U.S. employers won’t, and only 56% of those who do will also ask for proof.

Medical, religious exemptions

Washington University announced its COVID-19 vaccine requirement Tuesday in a message from university leaders to faculty, staff and trainees. The statement said that a fully vaccinated campus should allow the university to bring back the bulk of its workforce, and lift many of the public health restrictions that have been in place for more than a year.

The university will consider exemptions for medical and religious reasons on a case-by-case basis. The school’s website says the consequences for skipping vaccination can include suspended access to university facilities, unpaid suspension for up to 30 days, or, beyond that, termination of employment.

The university had already announced, in late April, that the vaccines would be required for students. The university employs 18,300 in the region, and its typical fall enrollment is upwards of 15,500.

St. Louis University on June 8 announced a vaccine requirement for students, faculty and staff returning to campus in the fall.

In Missouri, the pace of vaccinations has slowed dramatically since a peak in April. The state on Tuesday reported a seven-day average of 12,245 doses administered, down from 50,020 in mid-April. So far, 2.64 million people have received a first dose of vaccine, or 43.0% of the population.

Missouri now lags well behind the national rate of 52.6% of the population having received at least one dose, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data accessed Tuesday.

Missouri reported 580 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, and 26 more deaths due to the virus. The seven-day average of new confirmed cases was 369, up from 250 at the beginning of June, but still significantly down from a peak of 4,723 in November, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force reported 14 new COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals in the area, and a total of 119 virus patients across area BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital facilities. Task force data lags two days.

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