Dartmouth, Colby-Sawyer and Dartmouth-Hitchcock grapple with COVID-19 vaccination policies for workers

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2021 9:59:55 PM
Modified: 6/19/2021 10:04:27 PM

NEW LONDON — Major Upper Valley employers so far have taken varying approaches to COVID-19 vaccinations and their workers, mirroring national debates about whether they can be mandated.

Colby-Sawyer College and Dartmouth College plan to require employees and students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 ahead of the next school year, raising the ire of some workers. Meanwhile, Dartmouth-Hitchcock does not require employees to be vaccinated, to the dismay of at least one immunocompromised patient, though administrators report that more than 80% of the staff there are fully vaccinated.

For its part, Colby-Sawyer’s policy says that employees who fail to comply with the school’s vaccine mandate by Aug. 1 will be placed on unpaid leave until the college’s human resources office determines their employment status. However, they can also apply for a religious or medical exemption.

A Colby-Sawyer employee who feels the college might unfairly replace workers raised the policy with the Valley News but declined to be quoted.

Federal law allows employers to institute such requirements for workers, as long as reasonable accommodations are made for those with disabilities or religious beliefs that conflict, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A bill passed by the New Hampshire Legislature this session, HB 220, would bar public entities from issuing such requirements. A spokesman for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said he will “carefully consider the bill” once it reaches his desk.

Courts are beginning to see vaccine requirements tested. A federal judge in Texas last week supported employers’ ability to institute such requirements by dismissing a lawsuit brought by employees of Houston Methodist Hospital who had opposed the hospital’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Colby-Sawyer’s policy seems to have broad compliance among the college’s employees, according to Gregg Mazzola, a college spokesman. As of Friday, 45, or 96%, of full-time faculty and 137, or 83%, of full-time staff have provided officials with proof of vaccination.

College officials have said vaccination is necessary for the school to resume normal operations.

“The vaccine mandate will ensure the safest learning environment possible for our students and our residential educational experience,” Colby-Sawyer President Susan Stuebner said in a May news release.

The college pays employees for the time it takes for them to get vaccinated and will make accommodations for those who cannot be for medical or religious reasons as long as “they do not cause Colby-Sawyer undue hardship or pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others,” according to the policy.

Those who receive exemptions to the vaccine mandate may be required to participate in COVID-19 testing, wear a mask, socially distance or live in segregated housing from their vaccinated peers, the policy said.

Dartmouth policy pending

About 10% of the members of Local 560 of the Service Employees’ International Union, which represents about 460 Dartmouth College employees, remain skeptical about COVID-19 vaccines, said Chris Peck, the union’s president. While Peck, a painter, has been vaccinated, he said the union has to represent all members fairly.

He said he doesn’t think the college will mandate vaccination while the three vaccines in use in the U.S., those made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, are still under emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. But all three vaccine makers have applied for full FDA approval — a lengthier and more rigorous process — and Peck said he expects that the college will require vaccination once one or more of the available vaccines gets the full green light.

Vaccine-hesitant employees “may come to a line that you have to figure out if you want to cross,” Peck said, meaning that employees may ultimately have to choose between COVID-19 vaccination and their jobs.

The college is still firming up its employee vaccination policy and plans to make an announcement this week, said Diana Lawrence, a Dartmouth spokeswoman. She declined to provide further details until then.

Dartmouth Provost Joseph Helble said late last month that the college plans to expand its current requirement that students be vaccinated against COVID-19 ahead of fall term to also include employees. He said then that he expected employees would be allowed to submit waivers for medical and religious exemptions.

As of Thursday, 75% of Dartmouth’s on-campus community and 59% of the total community had completed their vaccination and shared documentation of it with the college, according to the school’s online dashboard.

No vaccine rule at DHMC

In the meantime, it’s the lack of a vaccine requirement for employees at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center that irks Annie Clark, a 66-year-old patient from Center Tuftonboro, N.H.

Clark, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia a year ago, had a stem cell transplant last November. As a result, she said she is so immunocompromised that her doctors have told her not to go grocery shopping on the way home from medical appointments, which have been her only outings of late.

“I have always felt safe walking into the hospital and felt everyone was on the same team,” Clark wrote in May, in the first of two letters she sent to D-H CEO Joanne Conroy.

But Clark’s perception of safety at the hospital was challenged this spring when she went to DHMC for routine tests and asked the technician who was drawing her blood about her experience getting vaccinated. Clark, who for medical reasons cannot yet be vaccinated herself, was upset to hear that the technician had not been vaccinated, nor did she plan to be, Clark said in a letter to Conroy that she shared with the Valley News. This interaction repeated itself a few weeks later with a different technician who declined to disclose her vaccination status to Clark.

“Hospital workers who do not believe in vaccines should not be working in a medical setting, especially not in a high-risk oncology department where many patients like me have compromised immune systems,” Clark wrote.

Conroy, in a May 25 response to Clark, said 80% of the D-H’s employees have been vaccinated and more continue to be vaccinated weekly, according to a copy of the letter provided to the newspaper by Clark. Conroy also wrote that the vaccines “have not yet been given full approval by the federal government. We must acknowledge that under these circumstances, there are individuals — including some health care workers — who experience hesitancy to be vaccinated.”

D-H has “strongly encouraged” employees to be vaccinated and consistently told them that “vaccines are safe and effective,” she wrote. “However, at this time, we remain in the large majority of hospitals that have not mandated COVID-19 vaccination for staff.”

D-H officials said they could not comment on Clark’s case. But moving forward, D-H officials will be looking to state and national health care groups for direction, Dr. Michael Calderwood, DHMC’s chief quality officer, said in an interview on Friday.

“Like all health systems, we continue to evaluate this,” he said.

D-H still requires masks, as well as screening for COVID-19 symptoms at the door, and testing for those with symptoms, Calderwood said.

“If you’re coming into a health care setting, it really is incumbent on us to make sure that we are doing the things to keep you safe,” he said.

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

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