Update on July 28, 2021: Two more hospital systems, UCHealth and Denver Health, have announced they will require employees to be vaccinated by the fall. This brings the total number of hospitals with vaccine mandates to nearly 20.
Employees at five Colorado hospitals will be required to get vaccinated against the coronavirus by this fall, the first mandates for health care workers in the state.
But, even as the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus leads to increasing case counts across Colorado, no other hospital systems are poised to follow suit — though that could change quickly.
Arizona-based Banner Health, which operates hospitals in Greeley, Fort Collins, Loveland, Sterling and Brush, last week announced that it will require vaccination against COVID-19 as “a condition of employment,” meaning that employees who do not comply could be fired. Employees have until Nov. 1 to be fully vaccinated.
In a news release announcing the mandate, Banner cited the delta variant and the need to protect patients and its workforce as reasons for issuing the order.
“We care for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and we owe it to them to take every measure possible to ensure the safest care environment,” Banner Health CEO Peter Fine said in a company-wide email sent last week and quoted in the news release. “We are taking this step to reduce risk for our patients, their families, visitors and each other.”
Momentum for vaccine mandates for health care workers is growing across the country.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced this week that it will require frontline health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The American Hospital Association says it supports mandates. So do other major medical groups, such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Nursing, which joined with more than 50 other organizations in a joint statement supporting vaccine mandates for health care workers, including those in nursing homes and other long-term care centers.
But hospitals in Colorado have so far moved more tentatively.
Following Banner’s announcement, The Colorado Sun reached out to the state’s other large hospital systems. None of them has imminent plans to announce a mandate.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment likewise has no plans to require health care workers to get vaccinated.
While saying that employers may be able to mandate vaccination, a CDPHE spokeswoman told The Sun that, “The state of Colorado is not currently pursuing any mandates.”
One reason may be that Colorado hospitals already have high vaccination rates, at least compared with the general public.
As of Tuesday afternoon, about 58% of Colorado’s population had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Hospital systems contacted by The Sun put their vaccination rates among all staff at at least 75%, with most coming in above 80%. Rates among frontline medical staff — doctors, nurses and others directly involved in patient care — are even higher.
But looming even larger in the decision whether to mandate is the current regulatory status of the COVID-19 vaccines. The Food and Drug Administration has not yet given them full approval — instead, the vaccines are being administered under a fast-track approval process called an emergency use authorization.
The FDA is expected to give full approval to at least one of the COVID vaccines, the one made by Pfizer, in the coming weeks. While some employers have moved forward with issuing mandates now, many have been cautious about their legal authority to do so before the FDA gives its full OK.
Most Colorado hospitals appear to be waiting for the full FDA approval before making a decision.
“We are not planning a mandate at this time and will re-evaluate when the vaccine becomes FDA-approved,” Centura Health spokesman Kevin Massey wrote in an email. “We are hopeful that more of our caregivers will choose to receive the vaccine.”
Centura is among several hospital systems in Colorado to offer employees incentive bonuses for getting vaccinated. Centura and UCHealth, for instance, are offering employees $500 to get fully vaccinated. Both systems say they have seen increases in vaccination rates following the announcement of the incentive program.
But the deadline to get vaccinated to be eligible for those bonuses is coming up at both Centura and UCHealth hospitals. UCHealth spokesman Dan Weaver said the system expects to issue a mandate sometime in the fall, after the incentive program ends, though a specific date has not yet been set.
Hospitals across the state may also be looking to one another before deciding to issue a mandate. Especially in the Denver metro area, hospitals often share providers. Doctors who practice at UCHealth, for instance, may also work at Denver Health.
That makes their decisions to issue vaccine mandates somewhat interconnected, and having hospitals move together in issuing mandates would place greater pressure on workers to get vaccinated — because workers opposed to vaccination couldn’t quit and then get a new job at a hospital across town.
Regardless of the human-resources strategizing at work, Colorado hospitals remain firmly in favor of vaccination for everyone who is eligible.
“We have been extremely eager to provide COVID-19 vaccines to as many people as we possibly can,” a spokeswoman for HealthONE, owner of several major hospitals in the Denver metro area, including Swedish Medical Center and The Medical Center of Aurora, wrote in a statement. “We’ve spent every day for more than a year and a half fighting COVID-19, we’ve seen the impact it has had, and we know the vaccine is the next best step to a sense of normality and the opportunity to get back to the activities we love with friends and family.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 2:00 p.m. on Friday, July 30, 2021, to correct that Banner Health operates five hospitals in Colorado.