ST. LOUIS — Mercy Health on Wednesday directed of all its employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 30, becoming the fourth major St. Louis area hospital system to require staff to get the shots.
The move comes as Missouri hospital and public health officials are doing all they can to encourage vaccination as the best tool to fight the more infectious and dangerous delta variant of the coronavirus.
Low vaccination rates coupled with the variant have been blamed for a surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations across Missouri, including an increase in patients younger than 18 at one hospital in southwest Missouri — the area of the state hit hardest.
Mercy has hospitals and clinics across southwest Missouri, including Joplin and Springfield, as well as in the St. Louis area. The health system also serves communities in Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Arkansas and Missouri lead the United States in the rate of new coronavirus cases.
Dr. William Sistrunk, Mercy infectious disease specialist, said the vaccine requirement is essential in protecting the health of employees and patients.
“As health care leaders in our communities, it is important we set the standard to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Sistrunk said. “Our goal is to ensure the safest possible work environment for our co-workers and patients while also being a part of the effort to stop the spread of the virus in the communities we serve.”
Officials with the Chesterfield-based health care system say they are joining more than 20 other hospital chains across the U.S. that have made the vaccine mandatory.
Both Pfizer and Moderna have applied to the Food and Drug Administration for full approval of their COVID-19 vaccines, which is expected soon, hospital officials said. COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective with more than 171 million Americans already vaccinated under emergency use authorization.
As other hospitals have reported, the majority of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Mercy hospitals have not been vaccinated.
“More than 95% of recent hospitalizations across the U.S. are people who aren’t vaccinated. The data is clear. Vaccination is key to saving lives,” said Dr. John Mohart, Mercy’s senior vice president of clinical services.
Officials with CoxHealth were asked about the vaccination rate among employees during a news conference held Tuesday to discuss the delta variant’s impact on patient loads and staffing needs.
CoxHealth is based in Springfield and operates six hospitals and several clinics across hard-hit southwest Missouri.
About 62.5% of CoxHealth staff — or 7,000 employees — are vaccinated, officials said. Since the rollout of the vaccines, none of those who got the shots have been admitted to the hospital with COVID-19.
“That’s a pretty strong case to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Nana Gaisie, medical director of employee health for CoxHealth.
The rates among employees vary according to education levels, officials said. About 92% of physicians are vaccinated, while rates are as low as 40% among jobs requiring only a high school diploma.
Across Springfield’s Greene County, just 38% of residents have initiated vaccination, state data shows. Most of the surrounding counties are below 30%.
CoxHealth has recently seen more children hospitalized with COVID-19, said Dr. Kofi Asare-Bawuah, the health system’s pediatrics medical director.
Since June 21, the health system has cared for nine pediatric COVID-19 patients, when previously the system would see two to four a month, Asare-Bawuah said. The youngest was just over a week old, and the oldest was 18.
“The ones admitted are sicker than those we had previously admitted,” the doctor said. They needed more help with getting enough oxygen.
Boone County has the highest vaccination rate in Missouri but it joins a list of Missouri jurisdictions recommending residents wear masks indoors no matter their vaccination status.
“It’s important that community members do everything possible to protect themselves and each other, regardless of vaccination status. It is especially important to help protect those who cannot get vaccinated, specifically children under the age of 12,” read the public health advisory issued Wednesday by Columbia-Boone County Public Health and Human Services.
Health officials in Jefferson, St. Louis and St. Louis County issued a similar advisory six days ago as area cases and hospitalizations show upward trends.
In Boone County, nearly 51% of residents have initiated vaccination, but it still falls short of the 70% estimated to achieve herd immunity and slow the spread of virus.
“Talk to your friends and family about the importance of getting the vaccine,” the advisory stated. “For parents of children younger than 12 who can’t be vaccinated, the best way to protect your child is to make sure the adults around them are vaccinated.”
BJC HealthCare and Washington University on June 15 were the first major institutions in the St. Louis region to announce COVID-19 vaccine requirements, setting a Sept. 15 deadline for employees.
St. Luke’s Hospital made a similar announcement on June 25, with an Aug. 13 deadline. SSM Health came next on June 28, with employees having to be fully vaccinated by the end of September.
Updated at 6:15 p.m.