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Asante: 87% of employees got COVID-19 vaccination

Asante employee vaccination rates went from 64% to 87% after the state imposed a COVID-19 vaccination mandate on health care workers. Jamie Lusch/Mail Tribune
Providence reported 94% compliance with state vaccination mandate that takes effect Monday

With a state COVID-19 vaccination going into effect Monday, Asante said 87% of its employees are vaccinated.

Asante operates Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, Asante Ashland Community Hospital, Asante Three Rivers Medical Center in Grants Pass and other medical facilities in the Rogue Valley.

Providence, a multi-state network that includes Providence Medford Medical Center and other local facilities, said in Southern Oregon it has a 94% “compliance rate.”

Providence said that figure captures workers who are vaccinated or who have received a medical or religious exception. Providence officials did not disclose an employee vaccination rate despite repeated requests from the Mail Tribune.

“We are grateful that the vast majority of our caregivers have received their vaccinations — an essential step toward keeping our caregivers and patients safe,” said Julie Denney, spokesperson for Providence Medford Medical Center.

Asante officials said vaccination will help protect patients.

“The safety of our patients always has been and always will be our priority. When someone comes to Asante for medical care, we must ensure we’re providing them with the safest place to receive that care. A fully vaccinated workforce will help us meet our mission to safely serve the community. The community should expect nothing less,” said Asante spokesperson Lauren Van Sickle.

After Oregon was hit by a COVID-19 surge that overwhelmed Jackson and Josephine county hospitals and strained other hospitals statewide, Gov. Kate Brown issued a vaccination mandate. Health care workers and K-12 school employees and volunteers have until Oct. 18 — this coming Monday — to be vaccinated.

In August, before Brown announced the mandate, 64% of Asante employees were vaccinated, compared to the current rate of 87%.

Among all Jackson County residents 18 and older, the vaccination rate has reached 64.3%.

Asante hospitals have suffered a series of workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 during the pandemic, including a summer outbreak with more than 100 cases at Asante’s Medford hospital.

Providence Medford Medical Center has also had COVID-19 cases among workers.

Although most local health care workers were vaccinated already or later complied with the state vaccination mandate, some workers are leaving their jobs rather than get a COVID-19 shot.

“Our employees are facing some of the hardest decisions of their professional and personal lives. We do not want one single employee to leave our organization because of this mandate. However, the choice is not up to us. Each person will make a decision that is best for them, and we respect their choice,” Van Sickle said.

The state mandate allows workers to seek religious and medical exceptions to vaccination. It’s up to hospitals to decide who is granted an exception, and what to do about workers who get an exception. Some hospitals are choosing to separate unvaccinated workers from patients.

At Asante, workers who are granted medical exemptions won’t be allowed to work in facilities given the risk to patient and employee safety, said Asante Vice President of Human Resources Robert Begg.

Other alternatives such as remote work or reassignment may be considered to accommodate medical exceptions, he said.

As for religious exemptions, if workers can perform their roles completely remotely, Asante offers remote work as an accommodation, Begg said.

If remote work isn’t possible, generally the only available reasonable accommodation is unpaid leave. Any other accommodation would pose a significant risk to the safety of patients and other workers, he said.

If people go on leave, Asante is allowing them to use their vacation time and other earned time off to get paid until those benefits are exhausted, according to policy information posted online.

Begg said Asante is evaluating each case to determine an appropriate and reasonable accommodation consistent with applicable legal requirements.

Providence did not answer how it is dealing with workers who request and get exceptions.

Hospitals across the state could see gaps in staffing as the mandate takes effect.

Nationwide, at least 21 states have vaccination mandates for health care workers. In November, a federal mandate goes into effect that requires workers at businesses with more than 100 employees to get vaccinated or face weekly COVID-19 testing. The mandates could worsen staffing shortages across a broad range of industries.

People who leave work due to vaccination mandates are generally not eligible to receive unemployment benefits.

Begg said Asante’s leaders are working to ensure that any initial staffing gaps are filled where possible. There may be longer wait times for patients in certain areas like emergency departments or outpatient services.

Asante has additional contract labor in place, and is ensuring on-call people are available to fill in for critical roles. It’s also encouraging state and federal agencies to continue providing workers to help, Begg said.

Providence said it “remains confident that we are well-positioned to continue serving the needs of our patients.” It didn’t offer other details, saying it’s still in the process of responding to mandate impacts.

As Asante works to comply with the state vaccination mandate, it’s facing fierce criticism on social media.

One woman posted, “Your COVID policy is disgusting...you have your full staff of talented dedicated nurses working through the past 18 months. Capable of protecting themselves and their families…now because of a ridiculous mandate you are going to lose your staff. Your administration is a disgrace. I hope they all abandon your facility and Asante goes BROKE. You deserve it for your total disregard of your staff.”

Others said offering unpaid leave as an accommodation for a religious exemptions to vaccination is unfair. Instead, health care workers should be allowed to wear masks and do weekly COVID-19 testing, they said.

“What truly saddens me is there are people in our community misdirecting their anger and frustration when it comes to this mandate,” said Van Sickle, Asante’s spokesperson. “They are blaming Asante and other health care providers for something that was thrust upon us that we are legally obligated to comply with.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.