Monument Health announced Thursday it will require all staff members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 1. Monument is the last of the three major health systems in South Dakota to require its employees get a COVID vaccine.
The health system said the vaccine requirement applies to all Monument Health physicians and caregivers, regardless of whether they work in clinical or nonclinical jobs. Currently, the health system’s vaccination rate for employees is a little over 55%, with the goal being 80% or higher.
Dr. Shankar Kurra, Monument Health's vice president of medical affairs, said the COVID-19 vaccine requirement is similar to the health care system’s flu vaccine requirement. Kurra said Monument Health will consider exemption requests for caregivers with medical contraindications and sincerely held religious beliefs. Exempted individuals will be required to wear masks and personal protective equipment gear and social distance until the pandemic is over.
Those who want to file an exemption request must complete the declination process by Nov. 1, otherwise physicians and caregivers must provide proof of vaccination by the Dec. 1 deadline.
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“This is a decision that has been deliberated and carefully thought out in order to make sure it’s safe and make sure that we have approval from the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration],” Kurra said. “The main motivating factor is we want to prevent more severe illnesses.”
The health system said COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are soaring in western South Dakota and the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus has been spreading rapidly through the region. The number of new weekly West River COVID-19 cases nearly tripled in three weeks, and Monument Health’s Rapid City Hospital ICU is completely full.
Monument is also starting to see children under the age of 18 becoming hospitalized due to COVID, and expects a surge in pediatric cases like the rest of the country is seeing in the coming months.
“We are maxed out. This pressure on the health system is real, which is why we keep saying, ‘Go get vaccinated,’ because those folks that get into a critical care setting are 91% unvaccinated, and that is really putting a strain on the system," Kurra said. "This can become unsustainable if we continue to see this go on for the next few months, but for now, we’re managing."
Among Monument Health’s hospitalized COVID-19 patients, approximately 82% are unvaccinated, the health system said Thursday. Among those receiving ICU-level care, 91% are unvaccinated and 88% of patients on ventilators are unvaccinated.
Monument officials say this shows that even in breakthrough cases where patients have been fully vaccinated and later acquire COVID-19, the vaccine is effective in lessening the symptoms and severity of the virus.
“We are grateful for all of the hard work and heroism our physicians and caregivers have shown throughout this pandemic. We look forward to the day when COVID-19 is no longer a threat to our care teams, our patients, and our communities,” said Dr. Brad Archer, chief medical officer for Monument Health. “The only way to get there is through vaccination.”
With the Pfizer vaccine receiving full FDA approval, officials at Monument Health said the vaccine requirement is "the right thing to do for our patients, families, communities and colleagues." The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are expected to gain approval soon.
For employees who are still hesitant to receive a vaccine, Kurra is hosting weekly town hall-style presentations focused on answering any questions employees may have about the vaccine.
“That will lead to them going ahead and feeling comfortable to get it, and that’s the way we’d like to see this marched out. We’d like our employees to understand why this is important and also understand the risks they’re facing by not getting vaccinated,” he said.
More than 380 million vaccine doses have administered nationwide, and Monument Health said the vaccines have proven to be safe and effective in preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19.
“We expect that our workforce [complies] with the mission of our health system to do the right thing every day, and we expect them to take that sincerely and get vaccinated to help us save lives,” Kurra said.
The health system will join more than 170 other systems across the country, including Sanford Health and Avera Health in Sioux Falls, in requiring physicians and caregivers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Every day we see the damage that this virus does to patients,” Archer said. “As health care professionals, we owe it to our communities to do whatever we can to contain and control COVID-19. And extensive studies show that the vaccines are safe and effective.”