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Big Idaho health care providers mandate staff COVID vaccines

July 8, 2021 GMT
FILE— IN this Nov. 24, 2020 file photo employees schedule COVID-19 tests and prepare test kits at Primary Health Medical Group's clinic in Boise, Idaho. Primary Health Group CEO Dr. David Peterman announced Thursday, July 8, 2021 that all employees of Primary Health will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by September. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger, File)
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FILE— IN this Nov. 24, 2020 file photo employees schedule COVID-19 tests and prepare test kits at Primary Health Medical Group's clinic in Boise, Idaho. Primary Health Group CEO Dr. David Peterman announced Thursday, July 8, 2021 that all employees of Primary Health will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by September. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger, File)
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FILE— IN this Nov. 24, 2020 file photo employees schedule COVID-19 tests and prepare test kits at Primary Health Medical Group's clinic in Boise, Idaho. Primary Health Group CEO Dr. David Peterman announced Thursday, July 8, 2021 that all employees of Primary Health will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by September. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger, File)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Three of Idaho’s largest medical care providers announced Thursday that they would require COVID-19 vaccines for eligible employees.

The mandates from Primary Health Group, Saint Alphonsus Health System and St. Luke’s Health System are an effort to keep staffers and patients safe ahead of the busy cold and flu season and as coronavirus variants continue to spread in parts of the U.S.

Primary Health Group CEO Dr. David Peterman made the announcement to staffers in a company meeting. Primary Health has 21 family medicine and urgent care clinics in southwestern Idaho that see about 500,000 patient visits a year. About 130 of its more than 600 employees haven’t yet been vaccinated, Peterman said.

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“This is the right thing that needs to be done today,” Peterman said. “If you think in terms of a billion vaccine doses being given all over the world — and the serious side effects are extremely rare — you begin to see that it’s our obligation to make sure our clinics are safe.”

The company has required its staffers to be immunized against other contagious diseases for a decade, including an annual influenza vaccine, with exceptions made for employees with medical or religious exemptions. Requiring a COVID-19 vaccine for workers is the next logical step for keeping clinics open and employees and patients safe, Peterman said.

Several hospital systems nationwide have mandated COVID-19 vaccines for workers, but Peterman said he believes Primary Health may be the first independent medical group to require the vaccine.

The employees took the news well, some asking questions about the medical exemption process but none voicing opposition, Peterman said. Within a few hours of the announcement, however, profane calls and emails from people unconnected to the company — yet still upset about the new policy — began coming in. Most callers directed their ire at the staffers who answered the phones, something Peterman said was “just not right.”

“There’s been many positive comments from ‘outsiders,’ and from within our own employees,” Peterman said. “Not surprisingly, we’ve gotten nutty phone calls as we try to take care of our patients, you know, just ridiculous stuff.”

Similar mandates elsewhere have met pushback. More than 100 employees at a Houston hospital system sued over its requirement that staff be vaccinated after they were suspended without pay for failing to follow the rule. Last month a federal judge threw out the lawsuit against Houston Methodist Hospital system, telling the employees that they were free to seek employment elsewhere if they wanted to skip the vaccine, but that a basic part of any job is that employers can place limits on worker behavior in exchange for pay.

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Peterman said he accepts that some of his own workers may find the requirement “unacceptable.” Staffers with documented medical exemptions or religious exemptions won’t be required to get the vaccine, but they will have to wear masks and eye protection while in clinics, he said.

“This has nothing to do with politics. It’s not meant as any kind of statement,” he said. “Our intent is to be prepared for what’s coming in the fall.”

Schools in the region open in mid-August. Every year, the clinic sees a rise in viral illnesses about a month after schools open, Peterman said. With children under 12 still unable to receive the vaccine and low vaccination rates among older kids in Idaho, unvaccinated staffers would have to quarantine with coronavirus exposures or symptoms — which can mimic other viral illnesses.

Peterman said he fears a repeat of last year: At one point, 30% of his employees were out because of a positive coronavirus test or exposure, forcing seven clinics to temporarily close. For more than two months, National Guard workers mobilized by order of Idaho Gov. Brad Little helped staff Primary Health facilities, triaging patients and directing them to the right location.

“The key to prevention, the key to treatment, the key to vaccination is primary care clinics,” Peterman said. “So it is absolutely imperative that our clinics are safe and have employees there that can meet their needs. We don’t know what is coming this fall or this winter.”

The new faster-spreading delta variant, first detected in India, of COVID-19 has been moving through some regions, including in the neighboring state of Utah. Health officials there said Wednesday that the delta variant now represents about 80% of cases in that state.

Idaho has lagged far behind some other states in testing for coronavirus variants, with limited capacity to do the genetic sequencing tests that can identify concerning mutations like the delta variant. State public health leaders announced last month that they were working to increase testing for variants, however.

More than 195,000 cases of coronavirus have been detected in Idaho since the pandemic began, and more than 2,000 people have died from COVID-19.