FAYETTEVILLE -- Medical Associates of Northwest Arkansas has become the latest health care provider to require its staff to get the covid vaccination.
The surging number of cases in Arkansas and Missouri driven by the highly contagious delta variant drove the decision, according to a press release Thursday. The company set a Sept. 30 deadline for vaccinations.
Medical Associates of Northwest Arkansas is an independent, physician owned group with more than 730 employees at 22 clinics in Benton, Washington and Boone counties, according to spokeswoman Bekki Boyd.
As of Thursday, 83% of employees and 100% of physicians were fully vaccinated, she said in an interview.
Medical Associates is joining a number of health care providers across the nation requiring the vaccine for employees.
Locally, Mercy Health Systems announced July 7 it will require all workers to receive a covid-19 vaccine by the end of September. Mercy has 40,000 employees at clinics and hospitals in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas, including 5,700 employees in Arkansas.
Washington Regional medical Center isn't requiring covid vaccinations, but system President and CEO Larry Shackelford said last week he anticipates it will pursue a vaccine requirement soon. About 80% of Washington Regional employees are vaccinated for covid-19, spokeswoman Natalie Hardin said Thursday.
Northwest Health doesn't plan to make the vaccine mandatory, Abby Davenport, vice president of marketing and community relations, said last week. More than 60% of the health system's employees are vaccinated, she noted.
Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules allow an employer to require all employees physically entering a workplace to be vaccinated for covid-19 as long as it doesn't discriminate against employees with disabilities or based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, according to a news release issued in May.
Employers may offer incentives for receiving the vaccines, although the incentives can't be coercive, the release states.
Pulmonary physicians at the Fayetteville Diagnostic Clinic, who staff the covid inpatient unit at Washington Regional, are seeing the positive impacts and protection the covid-19 vaccines provide, the press release from Medical Associates said. The diagnostic clinic is part of the associates.
The majority of patients now hospitalized with covid-19 are not vaccinated, according to the release.
"The delta variant is likely the most prevalent variant in Arkansas at this time," said Dr. Allen Moseley, pulmonologist and member of the group's covid task force said in the release.
The variant is linked to higher transmission rates, more severe disease and higher hospitalization rates, he said.
"Low vaccination rates in the state and region can create the breeding ground for additional variants to develop," he said.
The decision to require vaccinations also stems from the risk of unvaccinated staff spreading the virus to other co-workers or patients, particularly those who are immunocompromised or otherwise particularly vulnerable, the release said.
Multiple safety studies and the large numbers of vaccines that have been performed over the last year suggest covid-19 vaccines have low risk and low complication rates, it said.
Fifty-eight patients were hospitalized with covid-19 in Northwest Arkansas on Wednesday, 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.
"The last time we had volumes in the 50s was in February 2021 during the decline of our winter surge," Pollard said. "The vast majority of today's covid-19 hospitalizations are people who have not been vaccinated."
Percentage of the population fully vaccinated as of Thursday:
• Benton County — 40.07%
• Washington County — 40.73%
• Boone County — 28%
• Arkansas — 39.94%
Source: Arkansas Department of Health.