Kansas hospitals hesitate to require COVID-19 vaccine for staff before FDA approval

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TOPEKA — Kansas health care providers aren’t ready to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for employees, despite rising COVID-19 case numbers and a desire to promote the efficacy of vaccines.

Several hospitals say they will consider a mandate once the free, safe and effective vaccines receive formal FDA approval. So far, the FDA only has authorized the vaccines under an emergency use designation.

Two Kansas hospital organizations — Ascension Via Christi, which has locations in Wichita and Manhattan, and Mercy Hospital in Columbus — already require all associates to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Ascension Via Christi took the initiative to act preemptively after a thorough decision-making process and “moral and ethical analysis,” the organization said. All associates, whether on-site or working remotely, have to meet the vaccine requirement by Nov. 11.

“As a health care provider and as a Catholic ministry, ensuring we have a culture of safety for our associates, patients and communities are foundational to our work,” Ascension Via Christi said in a statement. “We must do more to overcome this pandemic as we provide safe environments for those we serve.”

Medical experts expect FDA approval could come as soon as Sept. 1. When it does, more hospitals are expected to follow in the footsteps of Ascension Via Christi and Mercy Hospital to ensure staff and patient safety as COVID-19 cases rise across the state.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday reported 35 more deaths since Monday, as well as 120 new hospitalizations and 2,741 cases.

Cindy Samuelson, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Hospital Association, said health care workers across the state are monitoring the rising numbers in their communities and factoring that into decisions. She said with 10-15% of vaccinated workers having breakthrough positive cases, the desire to implement mitigation strategies soon is of the utmost importance.

Mandating vaccines for things like the flu is already commonplace in Kansas hospitals, laying the groundwork for a COVID-19 shot requirement, Samuelson said.

“We’re thinking each hospital system is best positioned to determine whether they’re going to mandate it because right now there’s a big variety of what we’re seeing across the state,” Samuelson said. “We’re supporting them making that decision locally, but there are going to continue to be more and more going that path.”

According to a report from the Emporia Gazette, Newman Regional Health CEO Bob Wright said its facilities would not be among those to mandate vaccines. Wright said a mandate for the hospital, where about 75% of staff are already vaccinated, would be a misstep.

Wright said masks and current mitigation strategies had proven effective thus far, with no visible transmission between patients and staff at Newman Regional.

Citizens Health in Colby also said it wasn’t considering mandating vaccines for staff at this time.

Other hospitals, like Lawrence Memorial Hospital Health, have yet to institute a mandate but are considering the option. Autumn Bishop, a spokeswoman for LMH Health, said vaccination efforts remain a major focus, but the hospital has not mandated the vaccine because the FDA has only granted emergency use authorization.

Bishop said the overall LMH Health vaccination rate is nearly 90%.

“As LMH makes decisions on this front, please know that the current vaccination rate at LMH Health is remarkably high — in fact, we have one of the highest vaccination rates in the region,” Bishop said. “Thankfully, we haven’t experienced the issues with hesitancy that we’ve seen in other health care settings across the country.”

The University of Kansas Health System also is awaiting further action from the FDA. Once it is approved, which Steven Stites, chief medical officer for KU Health, expects will occur promptly, hospital leaders will reconsider a requirement.

In the meantime, Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at KU Health System, is encouraging everybody, including health care workers, to get vaccinated.

“That FDA approval is just a label because, from the public and transparent knowledge and data that we have so far, we have seen that they offer great benefits and very minimal side effects,” Hawkinson said. “The safety profiles and the efficacy profiles are there, and so that might just be a label for some people to turn their hesitancy into getting vaccinated as well.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

See the latest COVID-19 stats for Lawrence and Douglas County on The Lawrence Times’ stat dashboard at this link.

Find out where you can get the free COVID-19 vaccine at this link.

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