Although North Olympic Peninsula hospitals have higher COVID-19 vaccination rates than the general public, more than 690 hospital workers are unvaccinated under policies that make the protection optional.
Forks Community Hospital CEO Heidi Anderson; Brandi Manuel, Jefferson Healthcare chief of patient safety and quality officer, and spokesperson Amy Yaley; and Jennifer Burkhardt, Olympic Medical Center chief Human Resources officer and general counsel. said last week vaccines are made readily available to employees.
They said hospital workers are screened daily for coronavirus symptoms and are required to wear personal protective mouth-nose coverings, from surgical masks to more effective N-95 gear and, at Forks Community Hospital, even more protective Powered Air Purifying Respirators, depending on the medical procedure.
“Vaccination is a layer, but there are a lot of other things we’re doing to keep patients and staff safe,” Yaley said Friday.
Dr. Allison Berry, Clallam County-Jefferson County public health officer, said it’s important for health care workers to be vaccinated.
“We are up close to very vulnerable people,” she said Thursday.
“If we need to do it, I am in support of a mandate to get health care workers vaccinated.”
Berry said in a text message that vaccination is the most powerful tool available against the unique coronavirus.
“When we combine that with masking and other infection prevention measures, we create incredibly safe environments for our patients,” she said.
“I do believe that health care workers have an ethical obligation to do all that we can to protect our patients from infectious diseases, and vaccination is a key part of that.”
Many businesses have chosen not to mandate vaccinations although they do follow health guidelines saying the unvaccinated should be masked.
As of Friday, 46.8 percent of people in Clallam County, population 77,331 in 2019, were not fully vaccinated, according to clallam.net.
In Jefferson County, 34 percent were not fully vaccinated in a population of 31,285 as of 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
There were 692 hospital staff members employed by hospital tax districts in Forks, Port Townsend and Port Angeles who were not vaccinated at the three hospitals as of last week.
Most hospital employees are vaccinated.
But at Jefferson Healthcare hospital, 19.6 percent were not fully vaccinated, or 162 of the hospital’s 830 employees.
At Olympic Medical Center, the largest employer in Clallam and Jefferson counties, 24.8 percent of employees were not fully vaccinated. That’s 407 of the hospital’s 1,640 workers.
At Forks Community Hospital, 41 percent were not fully vaccinated — 123 of the hospital’s 300 employees.
Vaccination totals for medical staff such as doctors and nurses compared to non-medical staff such as administrative assistants were unavailable Friday from Forks or Jefferson Healthcare officials.
Burkhardt said 93 percent of OMC medical providers have been vaccinated and 90 percent of all nurses, not including staff on extended leave or those who did not report their status.
Burkhardt said employees have chosen not to be vaccinated as a personal choice and because the Food and Drug Administration has approved the vaccines on an emergency basis but not given its full approval.
Berry has said full approval is “very similar” to emergency use authorization and does not require further testing.
More than 56 percent of Americans 12 and older are fully vaccinated under the emergency use authorization, according to the CDC.
President Joe Biden said last week that FDA approval could be granted by Aug. 31.
Top staff at the Port Angeles and Port Townsend hospitals have been vaccinated.
That’s true for Jefferson Healthcare CEO Mike Glenn and Olympic Medical Center CEO Darryl Wolfe, their spokespeople said. And all of the OMC hospital commissioners are vaccinated, Burkhardt offered Friday.
Anderson would not say if she has been vaccinated.
“I am going to choose not to answer that question,” she said Friday.
“It’s my own private decision and I take care of my body and I don’t feel that needs to be out there for everybody.”
The hospital officials said vaccination policy has centered on the employees’ right to choose whether to get vaccinated coupled with mandatory hygiene measures.
Burkhardt and Anderson said unions have in the past resisted mandatory flu vaccination measures but have not reached out to union representative to get their take on mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.
“Historically, they have resisted mandates of vaccinations,” Burkhardt said.
Employees at the three hospitals sign a declination document saying they are refusing to take the flu vaccine. They do not sign such a document concerning the coronavirus vaccine.
Nevertheless, “we all want to encourage more people to be vaccinated,” Yaley said.
“We rolled out a robust campaign for vaccinations and made it readily available to our staff,” Burkhardt said.
Manuel gave lack of FDA approval as a reason for why vaccinations are not mandatory for staff, adding that the hospital is proud that the county has a top vaccination rate in the state of Washington.
A physician-led team makes decisions on vaccination policies and Jefferson Healthcare works closely with the Washington State Hospital Association, she said.
“We are making [vaccinations] as easy and accessible as possible,” Manuel said.
Yaley said eight employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and that none contracted it at the hospital.
Burkhardt and Anderson said Friday they did not have information on employee coronavirus cases.
Burkhardt said OMC is “strongly encouraging” new employees to get vaccinated.
She said Friday she asked employees about not getting vaccinated and got responses that were similar to what might be found in the general public.
Burkhardt said some employees are concerned about the science behind the vaccine and others are concerned about side effects, while others have religious objections or focus on personal rights.
“It’s kind of the same as other settings,” she said.
The polices stand even as the American Hospital Association on Wednesday endorsed mandatory vaccinations for health care workers as coronavirus cases surge across the U.S., including in Washington state.
“This is clearly what is necessary,” Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/07/21/covid-shots-health-care-workers).
“It’s really good for patients, and it gives cover to a lot of hospitals that have been on the fence,” he said.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected]