FARGO, N.D. — A dominant health system in the Dakotas that bills itself as one of the largest health organizations in the country said Thursday it is making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for all its employees, citing the spread of more contagious variants.
Sanford Health is requiring all workers to get shots by Nov. 1. More than 90% of clinicians and 70% of nurses in the organization are already fully vaccinated, system officials said.
"This is the right thing to do for our patients and residents, people and communities," said Bill Gassen, Sanford president and CEO. "As more contagious COVID-19 variants continue to spread and threaten our communities, we must do everything we can to protect each other and our loved ones."
The American Hospital Association on Wednesday announced its support of hospitals and health systems that implement mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies for healthcare workers.
Sanford has 46 hospitals, 1,500 physicians and more than 200 Good Samaritan Society senior care locations in 26 states and 10 countries. It is based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and has major medical centers in Fargo and Bismarck, North Dakota, and Bemidji, Minnesota.
Dr. Doug Griffin, Sanford vice president and medical officer in Fargo, said a final decision hasn't been made on the possibility of furloughs for those who refuse the vaccine but said "they would not be working." He said the deadline gives employees "plenty of time" to get the shots and many of those who haven't been vaccinated were likely waiting for a mandate.
Sanford employees are already required to have several other vaccines, including annual flu shots that also need to be completed by Nov. 1. As with all vaccines, the hospital will allow certain exemptions for medical or religious reasons when it comes to the coronavirus shot.
"Nearly all new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated people, and the overwhelming data confirms that the vaccines are not only safe, but the best and most reliable way to prevent transmission of the virus," said Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, Sanford's chief physician.
North Dakota's virus immunization rates are among the lowest in the country; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that less than 40% of the state is fully vaccinated. Reproductive health doctors from around the state held a virtual town hall Wednesday in an effort to clear up misinformation about the effects of COVID-19 vaccines on fertility and pregnancy.
More than 53% of people in Minnesota and 46% of people in South Dakota are fully vaccinated, the CDC reports.
"We're far from where we need to be," Griffin said.