Dartmouth-Hitchcock to require COVID-19 vaccines for employees

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/3/2021 8:44:05 AM
Modified: 8/3/2021 10:06:09 PM

LEBANON — Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health said Tuesday it will require employees to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by the end of September, leading what is expected to be a wave of Twin State hospitals with such mandates.

The New Hampshire Hospital Association also put out a “consensus” statement on Tuesday saying that it “supports that every New Hampshire hospital and health system adopt a policy endorsing mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for all hospital and health system employees and clinical staff, with appropriate exemptions.”

Dr. Joanne Conroy, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health’s CEO, said she does not think the health system will lose many workers due to the new requirement.

“I appreciate this is a difficult decision” for some, Conroy said in a Tuesday morning interview. But, she said, they are “making it for our community.”

The new requirement will apply to all D-HH employees, including those working remotely or per diem, but employees may also request an exemption for medical or religious reasons.

The Lebanon-based health system, New Hampshire’s largest private employer, said in a Tuesday news release that “data and science clearly support the benefits of vaccination” and noted the outbreaks occurring because of the highly contagious delta variant across the region and the country, primarily among the unvaccinated.

“We just have to use every single tool we have,” Conroy said.

Many other hospitals in New Hampshire are expected to institute similar requirements. In the meantime, some nursing homes are requiring that workers get the shots, while others are not in part due to workforce issues.

Conroy described the statewide effort involving the hospital association as hospitals “all locking arms; saying that everybody is going to work toward requiring vaccination.”

On the Vermont side of the Upper Valley, Gifford Medical Center in Randolph has not required vaccines for employees, but has a vaccination rate of at least 93%, said Scott Fleishman, a hospital spokesman.

Still, support appears to be growing for health care vaccination mandates in the Green Mountain State.

The Vermont Medical Society on Tuesday issued a news release announcing that it had signed on to a joint national statement supporting COVID-19 vaccination mandates for health care workers.

Other signatories include the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Nurses Association.

The Pennsylvania-based Genesis Healthcare, New Hampshire’s largest nursing home care provider that operates facilities in Lebanon and Claremont, will require vaccination for employees, personnel, caregivers, and vendors across the company by Aug. 23.

“We applaud and support the decision Genesis made, and will support any provider issuing a vaccination mandate,” said Brendan Williams, CEO of the New Hampshire Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes in the state.

Statewide, more than 76% of nursing home workers are vaccinated, which puts it toward the top in the country and second only to Vermont in New England, Williams said.

Still, Williams said, some New Hampshire nursing homes might be hesitant to institute requirements due to workforce issues.

“The challenge for many long-term care providers is that we are at Defcon 1 when it comes to our staffing crisis,” he said. “To lose even one vaccine-hesitant worker, let alone several, could be debilitating to a facility’s operation.”

Williams further noted that some staffing agency workers, also known as traveling nurses, may refuse to come to a facility where there is a vaccination mandate in place.

“Short of a universal mandate, we will have an uneven playing field,” Williams said.

The Grafton County Nursing Home, where about 78% of workers are vaccinated, does not plan to require that employees get the shots, said Craig Labore, the administrator there.

“We continue to feel it is important to give our staff the ability to decide for themselves whether to receive the vaccine, or not,” Labore said.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, “believes private businesses, organizations, and universities have the right to mandate the vaccine for their employees,” said Benjamin Vihstadt, a Sununu spokesman.

HB 220, which Sununu signed into law last month, bars public entities from requiring immunization, but Vihstadt noted that “county nursing homes and medical facilities operated by the state” are exempt from the new law, and therefore can institute the requirements as they see fit.

Conroy said she wasn’t worried that the mandate would have an effect on D-HH’s workforce. Worker retention has not been a “significant problem” for other health systems around the country that have already instituted COVID-19 mandates, which D-HH officials have been mulling for months, Conroy said.

Efforts to speak with D-HH employees who reacted with angry emojis to news of the vaccine requirement on social media were unsuccessful, with one person saying they were “not at liberty to discuss this matter at the moment” and another saying they did not “know anyone who would be willing to put their name out there publicly in regards to this subject.”

About 20% of D-HH’s 13,000 employees in New Hampshire and Vermont remain unvaccinated, said Cassidy Smith, a D-HH spokeswoman. D-HH includes Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, New London Hospital, Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor, Visiting Nurse and Hospice for Vermont and New Hampshire, and 24 D-H clinics in the two states.

In order to help unvaccinated employees get their shots, D-HH plans to ramp up the number of vaccination clinics it’s offering for employees, Conroy said.

While vaccination does not fully protect people from contracting COVID-19, it does prevent most people with healthy immune systems from developing serious symptoms or dying, she said.

As of Tuesday, there were five inpatient cases of COVID-19, including two in intensive care, at Cheshire and DHMC, Conroy said. She said that was up from zero inpatient cases at D-HH hospitals earlier this summer.

Tuesday’s five cases had at least one thing in common, she said. They are “all unvaccinated.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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