Some of the state’s largest and most influential health care organizations Thursday issued a joint statement supporting mandates for health care workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The Colorado Hospital Association, the Colorado Nurses Association and the Colorado Medical Society, which represents doctors, signed onto the statement, along with 16 other organizations. The statement says all health care workers should be vaccinated; expresses support for organizations that have imposed vaccination mandates; and urges everyone age 2 and older to wear masks indoors in public places, including schools.
“Colorado’s health care workers have heroically cared for their communities throughout the pandemic,” the statement says, “but we must all come together to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
The statement comes as pressure mounts on state and local governments to do more to quell the new surge in cases caused by the highly infectious delta variant of the virus and to get more people vaccinated faster.
On Thursday, Children’s Hospital Colorado, SCL Health and Boulder Community Health became the latest health systems in the state to require employees to be vaccinated. Children’s said workers must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1 as a condition of employment, meaning people could be fired if they don’t comply. Workers who receive an exemption from the requirement will have to adhere to heightened rules around testing and personal protective equipment.
SCL Health and Boulder Community Health are giving workers until Nov. 1. Under federal law, vaccination mandates must include exemptions for valid medical or religious reasons, though those exemptions are typically narrow.
UCHealth, Denver Health, National Jewish Health and Banner Health, as well as Kaiser Permanente, have previously announced vaccine mandates for employees. The city of Denver has mandated that all health care workers at facilities in the city, including nursing homes, be vaccinated.
“Vaccines are essential in the fight against COVID-19,” Jena Hausmann, Children’s Hospital Colorado’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “With safe and effective vaccines widely available, this decision affirms our commitment to the safety and care for our team members and for those we serve.”
On Tuesday, the Colorado chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis and state and local health officials urging orders requiring universal mask wearing in Colorado schools and child care centers, regardless of a person’s vaccination status. The Colorado Vaccine Equity Taskforce, a group of political and health leaders at dozens of organizations across the state, urged the same.
“Colorado students need access to safe, uninterrupted learning this school year,” Dr. Edward Maynard, the AAP Colorado chapter president, said in a statement. “The current patchwork of school policies across the state will result in more COVID-19 cases, more transmission of the virus, more quarantines and repeated school closures.”
But at a news conference on Thursday, Polis showed no inclination to issue new mask orders or vaccination requirements for health care workers.
Polis noted that, while more than 500 people are currently hospitalized in Colorado with COVID-19, including 17 children, the state is nowhere close to exceeding hospital capacity. Polis has said many times that ensuring the state stays within its hospital capacity is his “North Star” in making decisions about statewide protective measures.
The state has issued guidance to school districts urging mask usage, in keeping with recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Polis has left it up to school districts to determine whether to mandate mask-wearing — something that has led to a patchwork of rules across Colorado as kids return to classrooms.
On Thursday, Polis reiterated the benefits of mask-wearing, while also downplaying the lack of a mandate.
“There is no silver bullet,” he said.
Speaking about masks, he added, “We believe they are part of a layered protection system that can keep kids safe.”
He used the news conference Thursday to tout another one of those protective layers: the state’s still-being-put-together program to offer free coronavirus testing to school districts. While details of the program have not yet been fully rolled out, Polis said the state is looking for ways to offer financial help to districts to implement surveillance testing systems and also looking at ways to encourage families to participate in the testing.
Among the ideas he floated Thursday is the possibility of paying families who get their kids tested. He said something in the $5 to $25 range is possible, though he did not offer more details.
“Just an acknowledgement of the fact that, yes, it does take a little time and maybe it means your kid has to get to school a little bit earlier,” Polis said.
Polis also had a warning for parents. Though keeping schools open for in-person learning is the state’s highest priority this school year — equal to keeping hospitals from being overwhelmed — families should still expect that classroom outbreaks and required quarantines may mean classes for some students could go back online, at least for a few days during the school year. Polis urged parents to be flexible.
If a school or a district becomes overwhelmed with coronavirus infections, Polis said state and local health authorities might then step in and require stricter measures, like mandatory mask-wearing and more frequent testing.
“We cannot afford to lose another year of in-person education for our kids,” Polis said. “Schools need to be open in a safe way.”