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As COVID-19 vaccination deadlines pass, St. Louis hospitals say most workers complied

Mercy Hospital South chaplain, the Rev. Bill Cardy, speaks to reporters after becoming one of the first Missourians to receive a coronavirus vaccination Monday, December 14, 2020.
File Photo / Theo Welling
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
The Rev. Bill Cardy, Mercy Hospital South chaplain, was one of the first Missourians to receive a coronavirus vaccination in December. The vast majority of hospital workers in the region have gotten the COVID after mandates took effect this fall.

Hospital officials in St. Louis say the vast majority of their employees have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine by the fall deadlines administrators set earlier this summer.

While some hospital officials had worried the vaccination requirements would lead people to quit rather than get the vaccine, there hasn’t been a mass exodus of workers, said Dr. Clay Dunagan, the head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

“That turns out to be a very tiny part of the workforce, and it's really not compromising health care operations,” he said.

In early July, the region’s four largest hospital systems — Mercy, BJC HealthCare, SSM Health and St. Luke’s — announced all workers would need to get the vaccine or face weekly coronavirus testing. Administrators said workers who did not comply would be suspended and fired.

Hospital systems offered exemptions from the mandate for religious or health reasons. They had different deadlines, but all required their workers to be vaccinated by October.

About 40 workers at BJC Healthcare, where Dunagan is the chief clinical officer, decided against getting vaccinated, he said. That represents less than 1% of more than 30,000 workers in the health system.

Officials at other hospitals say most workers have complied but declined to give detailed numbers.

“The vast majority of our employees in the St. Louis region were compliant with the vaccine mandate,” said a spokeswoman for SSM Health. “We continue to work with the small number of employees who were not vaccinated at that time.”

Mercy and BJC Healthcare have suspended employees who have not yet been vaccinated against the coronavirus, representatives of the hospitals said. If they don’t get the vaccine soon, they’ll be fired from their jobs.

Hospitals in St. Louis, Kansas City and other major metropolitan areas are less likely to view vaccine mandates as an employment risk, Dunagan said. “But I know in smaller hospitals and in more rural settings, it’s been viewed as a real threat. … I know some places shied away from issuing mandates for that purpose.”

That all four major hospital systems in the region issued their mandates during the same week likely persuaded skeptical workers to get vaccinated, said Alex Pennington, an emergency nurse at a St. Louis hospital.

“I think most people kind of came around with the mandate, especially since all the hospitals locally acted together,” he said. “It wasn’t just, ‘Well, I'm going to go to a different hospital.’ It was like, ‘I'm either going to do this mandate, which I'm a little upset about, or I'm going to have to move to rural Kentucky.’”

Most of the people in his department had gotten the vaccine within a month of it becoming available for health care workers, Pennington said. But there were a few holdouts.

“It’s kind of nice to know that there's probably only three or four people there that have exemptions and that aren't vaccinated,” he said.

In September, President Joe Biden announced the federal governmentwould soon mandate vaccinationsor routine testing for all United States health care workers as well as federal employees and contractors.

The president directed OSHA to implement the new policy, which has yet to go into effect.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Alex Pennington's first name.

Follow Sarah on Twitter:@petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.