Avera Health announced on Tuesday it will require full coronavirus vaccination among employees by Dec. 1, which will include the company’s Avera St. Mary’s Hospital in Pierre.
“This policy also applies to students rotating in Avera facilities, contracted workers and vendors,” a Tuesday press release read. “Avera Health will consider exemptions for employees with medical contraindications and sincerely held religious beliefs. Employees who receive an exemption will be required to wear appropriate personal protective equipment and comply with regular COVID-19 testing and other preventive measures.”
Tuesday’s announcement follows in the footsteps of Sanford Health, which announced its plans in late July requiring COVID-19 vaccines for employees and contractors by Nov. 1.
“As a healthcare ministry, Avera is called upon to provide a safe and protective environment for our patients, their families and our employees,” Avera Chief Medical and Innovation Officer Dr. David Erickson said Tuesday in a virtual press conference. “This is consistent with our mission and values. For decades, vaccination has been an important tool in public health and Avera has long been requiring vaccination among its employees.”
At the time Sanford announced that it would require COVID-19 vaccination, Avera spokesperson Cale Feller told the Capital Journal Avera was evaluating the same idea.
“COVID-19 vaccines have shown to be safe and effective in protecting our patients, our employees and our communities against this virus,” Feller wrote in a July 22 email. “Avera advocates that having a high percentage of vaccinated individuals is the only path out of the pandemic – and how we can prevent future increases in cases.”
Avera noted in its Tuesday press release that a majority of its employees are already vaccinated and an all-employee survey indicated that a majority favor the vaccine requirement.
South Dakota had 6,507 active COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, according to the South Dakota Department of Health. There were 941 new confirmed cases and 210 people hospitalized for COVID-19. Among South Dakota’s 66 counties, only Faulk and Sully were identified as having “low” community COVID-19 spread. The Health Department updates its COVID-19 dashboard daily around noon.
Hughes County, in which community spread was identified as “high” on Wednesday, had 60 active cases reported.
South Dakota State Epidemiologist Dr. Joshua Clayton said CDC recommendations since the beginning of the pandemic have focused limiting transmission of COVID-19 inside hospitals.
“There’s going to be a greater kind of ongoing risk within healthcare settings because they do have... constant new individuals infected with COVID-19 that are coming to receive care,” Clayton said. “The general recommendation for care of an individual with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 does include use of face mask, it also includes other personal protective equipment that individuals wear such as a gown, gloves and face shield. This is a little bit different than when we’re talking about exposures in the general community as you go about your everyday activities.”
Clayton said the Delta variant is a driver of the “vast majority” of recent cases at the state and national levels and the Health Department continues to monitor its greatest impacts.
“We’ve seen some of the larger case increases on the western part of the state and (we’re) still working to see how this impacts our overall hospitalizations and deaths, as well,” Clayton said.
Clayton added that even though the virus has mutated enough to have a variant, the same mitigation and prevention strategies to keep oneself healthy apply.
“It does take a little bit of time, usually about two weeks after you’ve received your full series, which is one dose for Janssen, two doses for Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, to really have the benefit of being fully immunized,” Clayton said. “The other mitigation strategies that we’ve employed since the very beginning of the pandemic are also important to consider, and those include wearing a mask to prevent the spread of disease and avoiding crowds, physically distancing and just washing your hands often so that you’re not potentially coming into contact with the virus on surfaces or other places.”