Missouri-based healthcare system Mercy, which has significant operations in Northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith, said Wednesday (July 7) that it would require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 30.
In a statement, Mercy said the new requirement comes as the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly, resulting in an uptick in hospitalizations at Mercy hospitals, including those in Fort Smith and Rogers.
Mercy officials said the situation is even more severe in Missouri, where it has hospitals and clinics in Joplin, Springfield, St. Louis and other locations.
According to the release, Mercy has seen the real-world impact of the protection vaccines provide. The majority of Mercy patients recently hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated.
“What we are seeing aligns with the Associated Press analysis of CDC data,” said Dr. John Mohart, Mercy’s senior vice president of clinical services. “More than 95% of recent hospitalizations across the U.S. are people who aren’t vaccinated. The data is clear. Vaccination is key to saving lives.”
In requiring the vaccine for employees and others who serve and work in Mercy facilities, Mercy joins dozens of healthcare organizations across the U.S. in instituting similar requirements.
More than 171 million Americans have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It is essential that we take these steps in order to protect the health of our co-workers and our patients at Mercy,” said Dr. William Sistrunk, Mercy infectious disease specialist. “As healthcare leaders in our communities, it is important we set the standard to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Vaccination is our best defense against the virus and already has provided many of our co-workers with the protection they need to care for our patients. Our goal is to ensure the safest possible work environment for our co-workers and patients while also being a part of the effort to stop the spread of the virus in the communities we serve.”
Mercy said it would work with employees to develop a compliance plan ahead of the scheduled deadline.
Jennifer Cook, a Mercy spokeswoman in Northwest Arkansas, said approximately 75% of all Mercy employees throughout the healthcare system had received the COVID-19 vaccine. In Arkansas, Mercy has just over 5,700 employees in Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas. Cook said employees not approved for a religious or medical exemption from the vaccine will face disciplinary action including termination.
In reaction to Mercy’s announcement, Larry Shackelford, president and CEO of Fayetteville-based Washington Regional Medical System, provided the following statement to Talk Business & Politics:
“Washington Regional has for many months been carefully weighing the merits of mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for its workforce. This is clearly the trend within the hospital industry nationally, and that trend is supported by guidance of federal employment and public health authorities. We have closely monitored the overwhelming efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccinations over the past seven months and are not unmindful of the less than ideal trends within our community as the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus takes hold. Our number one priority is the safety of our patients, their families and our staff. While we have not elected to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for our staff at this time, we fully anticipate that will be the direction that Washington Regional will pursue in the near future.”
Little Rock-based Baptist Health System, the largest healthcare system in Arkansas, also does not have a vaccine requirement for its employees but hasn’t ruled it out.
“We are urging our staff and the general public to take the vaccine as an important step to provide additional protection from the serious consequences of COVID-19, both for themselves and for others,” Baptist Health spokeswoman Cara Wade told Talk Business & Politics. “We feel the best defense against COVID is getting the vaccine. We currently do not mandate the vaccine for our employees, but have not ruled out a mandate in the future.”
Springdale-based Northwest Health also responded with a statement to Talk Business & Politics:
“Northwest Health remains consistent in following CDC guidelines regarding COVID-19 and vaccinations. Although we do not plan to make the vaccine mandatory, more than 60% of our employees have already chosen to be vaccinated. We are focused on educating our employees and the community about the vaccine, including sharing information about safety, efficacy and side effects. We strongly encourage our staff and the community to get vaccinated. We continue to follow certain safety protocols in our facilities including wearing masks and social distancing.”
Editor’s note: Northwest Arkansas Business Journal reporter Jeff Della Rosa contributed to this report.