Mercy Health System announced Wednesday all of its workers must receive a covid-19 vaccine by the end of September, joining numerous hospital systems nationally that have implemented the same requirement.
"What we are seeing aligns with the Associated Press analysis of CDC data," said Dr. John Mohart, Mercy's senior vice president of clinical services. "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."
The announcement was made as Arkansas' covid-19 hospitalizations rose, public health experts warned of the delta variant in the state and Missouri continued to face a surge amid low vaccination rates.
The requirement will affect all of Mercy's 40,000 employees in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas, according to spokeswoman Mardi Taylor. The health care system has 5,700 employees in Arkansas with hospitals in Rogers, Fort Smith and Berryville, she said.
About 75% of Mercy's employees are already vaccinated, said Taylor.
Mercy will work with employees to develop a plan for compliance ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline, the release states. Medical exemptions will be considered on a case-by-case basis, Taylor said. Workers who aren't approved for an exemption will be subject to disciplinary action, including termination, she said.
"It is essential that we take these steps in order to protect the health of our co-workers and our patients at Mercy," said Dr. William Sistrunk, a Mercy infectious disease specialist. "As health care leaders in our communities, it is important we set the standard to prevent the spread of covid-19. Vaccination is our best defense against the virus and already has provided many of our co-workers with the protection they need to care for our patients."
While Washington Regional isn't currently mandating covid-19 vaccinations for staff, hospital president and CEO Larry Shackelford said he anticipates the medical system will pursue a vaccine requirement in the near future.
About 80% of Washington Regional's employees have been vaccinated, said spokeswoman Natalie Hardin.
Washington Regional has been carefully weighing the merits of mandating covid vaccinations for its workforce for several months, Shackelford said.
"This is clearly the trend within the hospital industry nationally, and that trend is supported by guidance of federal employment and public health authorities," Shackelford said. "We have closely monitored the overwhelming efficacy and safety of the covid-19 vaccinations over the past seven months and are not unmindful of the less than ideal trends within our community as the delta variant of the covid-19 virus takes hold. Our number one priority is the safety of our patients, their families and our staff."
Although Northwest Health doesn't plan to make the vaccine mandatory, more than 60% of the health system's employees already have chosen to be vaccinated, said Abby Davenport, vice president of marketing and community relations.
"We are focused on educating our employees and the community about the vaccine, including sharing information about safety, efficacy and side effects," Davenport said. "We strongly encourage our staff and the community to get vaccinated. We continue to follow certain safety protocols in our facilities including wearing masks and social distancing."
Federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws don't prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering a workplace to be vaccinated for covid-19 as long as employers don't discriminate against employees with disabilities or based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, according to a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission news release issued in May.
Employers may offer incentives for receiving the vaccines, although the incentives can't be coercive, the release states.
Numerous hospital systems across the country have instituted vaccine requirements for their workers. Dozens of employees of the Houston Methodist hospital system filed a lawsuit opposing that system's vaccine requirement. A federal judge ruled against the workers last month.
On Wednesday, 32 patients were hospitalized with covid-19 at Mercy, Northwest Health and Washington Regional facilities across Northwest Arkansas, according to Martine Pollard, a spokeswoman for Mercy Health System who released a joint statement on covid-19 from the region's largest health care organizations.
Hospitals reported 93 patients in intensive care units and 33 on ventilators, including both covid patients and patients with other medical needs, she said.
"Our hospitals are relatively full partially due to many delaying much needed medical care, and we are caring for more that are critically ill," Pollard said. "While our overall covid-19 hospitalizations are still not extremely high, the steady rise of covid-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks is absolutely on track for us to have another surge of covid-19 hospitalizations, if we do not reach greater community immunity soon."
Across the state, 432 patients were hospitalized with covid-19 Wednesday, 176 were in intensive care units and 80 were on ventilators, according to Danyelle McNeill, public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Health.
As of Wednesday, 47% of Benton County residents, 48% of Washington County residents and 32% of Sebastian County residents were partially or fully vaccinated, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. About 539,545 people older than 12 live in the three counties, according to the department.
Statewide, 48% of the population was partially or fully vaccinated. Nationally, 55% of the population has had at least one vaccine dose, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday.
Percentages of residents vaccinated by county:
• Benton County: 7.5% partially vaccinated, 40% fully vaccinated
• Washington County: 8.2% partially vaccinated, 40% fully vaccinated
• Sebastian County: 6.5% partially vaccinated, 25% fully vaccinated
Source: Arkansas Department of Health