Two more major health systems announced Wednesday that they will require their employees to be vaccinated against coronavirus by the fall.
UCHealth, which operates the University of Colorado Hospital and 11 others, will require staff to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1. Denver Health will require its employees to be vaccinated by Nov. 1. UCHealth has about 24,000 employees.
“After fighting COVID-19 for more than a year, and as the dangerous delta variant has become the dominant strain in Colorado and elsewhere, it is clear that vaccination against this disease is essential to protect our employees, along with our patients and visitors,” Elizabeth Concordia, president and CEO of UCHealth, said in a statement. “We know that vaccination will also improve health and safety within the communities UCHealth serves, and we want to set an example and help bring an end to this pandemic.”
The move comes a little more than a week after Arizona-based Banner Health, which operates five hospitals in Colorado, announced a vaccine mandate for its staff by Nov. 1.
Momentum for a mandate for health care workers is growing across the country — the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said this week that it will require its frontline health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, including those who work at the VA’s facilities in Colorado.
Colorado’s other major hospital systems — Centura Health, HealthONE and SCL Health — have not issued a vaccine mandate. But that may change. Some of them have expressed an interest in waiting until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives full approval to the coronavirus vaccines, which are currently approved under a fast-track emergency use authorization.
Full approval could come for at least one vaccine in the coming weeks.
UCHealth said officials are confident the vaccine mandate would withstand any possible objections.
“So far when they’ve been challenged in other states, those state courts have held up the notion they can mandate vaccinations for employees,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth.
“As a health care entity, it’s our obligation to set that standard. It’s a great example for the community . . . we really want this pandemic to be over,” Barron said.
UCHealth did not coordinate with Denver Health, where many doctors are also faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, but the systems moving forward at the same time makes it easier to coordinate crossover training and education, she said.
Denver Health and UCHealth both estimate that current vaccination rates for employees are around 85%. UCHealth is offering staff a $500 to get fully vaccinated by Aug. 22, an incentive program that leaders at the hospital system believe has boosted rates.
UCHealth waited to change its policy until adequate vaccine supplies were available for all priority levels, Barron said, and also to see if Colorado would reach “herd immunity” levels of vaccination without mandates.
“That just didn’t happen,” she said. The rapid spread of the delta variant increased the urgency for higher vaccination rates.
“Right now the best tool we have is vaccination,” Barron said. “It was time to take that additional step.”
Health care workers are already required to be vaccinated each year against the flu. Those mandates allow workers to be exempted for valid medical or religious reasons, and the coronavirus vaccine mandates will have the same exemptions.
In addition to protecting patients who enter the hospitals, mandates for health care workers are also seen as a way to preserve staff from getting sick and being unable to care for others during a case surge.
“About 94% of our hospitalized patients are unvaccinated,” Barron said, in an earlier statement. “And even for fully vaccinated people who get sick, the vaccine reduces the severity of the illness. Vaccinated people are less likely to need ICU-level care or to die even if they need hospitalization.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 2:02 p.m. on Friday, July 30, 2021, to correct that Banner Health operates five hospitals in Colorado.