St. Luke’s hopes more employees choose to get vaccinated as hospital faces staffing crunch

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

Idaho’s latest COVID-19 surge, which has prompted some hospitals to delay certain non-emergency procedures because of staffing shortages, comes as a September deadline approaches for employees of St. Luke’s, Saint Alphonsus, and Primary Health to get vaccinated or risk losing their jobs. 

During a media call on Thursday, St. Luke’s Health Systems chief physician executive Dr. Jim Souza said while he’s concerned about losing nurses and other employees who decline to get vaccinated, the policy is the right choice for the hospital. 

When the health system first announced their new vaccination requirement in July, 79 percent of St. Luke’s employees were already vaccinated, while about 3,000 were unvaccinated, Souza said. Since then, about 400 more have chosen to receive the vaccine. 

Souza hopes that number will rise in coming weeks.

“There tends to be a lot of people who wait until it’s a lot closer to the deadline. And I get that. I respect that. People need time to weigh this decision,” he said. 

St. Luke’s is actively meeting with staff members in different operational units over the next two weeks to answer questions and address concerns about the policy. 

Saint Alphonsus is not currently tracking the number of unvaccinated employees, nor will it release that information in the future, said public relations coordinator Mark Snider.

“Colleagues have time to upload their proof of vaccination, and so we’re not going to compile any data until they’ve had a chance to comply with the requirement,” Snider wrote in an e-mail to Idaho Reports. “And because this is a personnel matter, we’re not going to make that information public.”

Protesters gather outside Saint Alphonsus in Nampa on July 30 to object to the hospital’s requirement that employees get the COVID-19 vaccine by September. Melissa Davlin/Idaho Reports

July’s announcement prompted protests from nurses and other employees and nursing students who disagreed with the vaccine mandate. So far, none of the three health care systems has indicated it will change its policy, with Souza reiterating that vaccinations are the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“This is real. This is hospitalizing and killing and long-term harming so many people. Too many people,” Souza said. 

Idaho’s COVID metrics are trending in the wrong direction. The statewide test positivity rate was 12.3 percent last week. On Thursday, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported 753 cases, and statewide hospitalizations and ICU admissions have reached the same levels as the state saw in November, at the beginning of the state’s third wave. Souza said while he didn’t want to make predictions, this fourth wave has the potential to be worse.

On Thursday, 197 St. Luke’s employees were out sick. Of those, 103 had confirmed COVID cases.

During the media call, Souza emphasized that a strained hospital system affects care for everyone, not just COVID-19 patients. An increased patient-to-nurse ratio with healthcare workers taking on longer or additional shifts is “not sustainable.”

“We should all care about that, because each one of us is going to need health care,” he said. “It probably won’t be today. And it probably won’t be tomorrow or next week. And maybe it won’t be you but maybe your spouse or child or your mom or your dad.”

St. Luke’s isn’t the only hospital struggling with staffing shortages. Kootenai Health has asked for traveling nurses, and has reassigned staff to help with its COVID surge.

Also Thursday, Gov. Brad Little implored Idahoans to get vaccinated to ease the strain on hospitals and help ensure an uninterrupted school year for Idaho students.

When asked if he was worried about unvaccinated nurses quitting and compounding the already strained patient-to-nurse ratio, Souza said “of course.” 

“You can look at other organizations and see what’s happened there. I’d like to do better than that. I don’t want to lose anyone,” Souza said. “But we won’t sacrifice this commitment to safety to our patients.”

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