DENVER — UCHealth and Denver Health announced Wednesday they will require all employees, providers, volunteers and partners to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by the fall.
UCHealth's deadline for vaccinations will be Oct. 1 and Denver Health's will be on Nov. 1. This means all employees will have to receive two doses of Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine prior to the deadlines.
“The best way to stay safe from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention for UCHealth. “The vaccines have been proven to be safe and highly effective in preventing severe illness and hospitalization, even from the delta variant. About 94% of our hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, and even for fully vaccinated people who get sick, the vaccine reduces the severity of the illness. Vaccinated people are less likely to need ICU-level care or to die even if they need hospitalization.”
Banner Health made the mandate announcement last week, requiring vaccination for all team members by Nov. 1.
“We care for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and we owe it to them to take every measure possible to ensure the safest care environment,” said Peter Fine, president and CEO for Banner Health, in a company-wide email on July 20.
The announcements come as the delta variant continues to spread rapidly across the U.S., with UCHealth seeing an increase in COVID-19 patients compared to early June. It’s currently caring for 85 hospitalized patients. National data shows that 97% of hospitalizations and 99% of COVID-19 deaths are people who are unvaccinated, according to Banner Health.
“After fighting COVID-19 for more than a year, and as the dangerous delta variant has become the dominant strain in Colorado and elsewhere, it is clear that vaccination against this disease is essential to protect our employees, along with our patients and visitors,” said Elizabeth Concordia, president and CEO of UCHealth. “We know that vaccination will also improve health and safety within the communities UCHealth serves, and we want to set an example and help bring an end to this pandemic.”
Nearly 85% of the 26,000 UCHealth employees are already vaccinated. Any employee who’s fully vaccinated by Aug. 22 will receive a $500 bonus.
Banner is holding drawings in July and August to give 10 fully vaccinated team members a chance to win $10,000 each.
Denver Health is not offering an additional incentive at this time.
Exemptions will be granted only for valid medical or religious reasons. Anyone who receives an exemption will be required to wear a mask at all times in UCHealth facilities and be tested for COVID-19 weekly. If employees at UCHealth do not comply, they will be placed on probation and given a grace period to get vaccinated.
Those not in compliance with the vaccine policy will face termination at both UCHealth and Denver Health.
Banner Health said COVID-19 vaccination will be a condition of employment and that it would provide further details to team members, including their exemption request process, in the coming weeks.
A UCHealth medical assistant, who asked that we not disclose her name out of fear of termination, says she’s torn about the new COVID-19 vaccine mandate and understands both sides of the argument. She plans to apply for a vaccine exemption because she had an adverse reaction to her first shot, but she says a lot of employees don’t have that option.
“There is a lot of upset people because they did not want to get vaccinated, and I heard multiple employees say they would quit if it came down to that, so it will be really interesting to see if we lose a lot of employees because of it,” the anonymous employee said.
A UCHealth nurse, who also asked to remain anonymous, called the mandate an impingement on employees' freedom. The nurse released the following statement:
“Hospitals requiring the COVID vaccine for employment with threats of 'termination' as a consequence, impinges on our freedom. This vaccine does NOT have FDA approval - it has "emergency use authorization." This means it has not completed necessary studies to be found safe and effective. It may be a 'good' vaccine, but those of us who wish to abstain until further research is complete should not be forced to comply.”
Sharona Hoffman, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, says employers have the right to require vaccines. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency, says employers can have these kind of mandates as long as they have exemptions for a medical or religious reason.
"Employers have the right to ask about vaccine status. People think that HIPAA applies here, it does not. HIPAA applies to health care providers and health insurers, but not to employers," Hoffman said. "There is another law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, that does have a confidentiality mandate for employers and also governs what kind of inquiries an employer can make, but as long as the inquiry is job-related, employers have a right to make those kinds of inquiries. They’re keeping the workplace safe, keeping employees safe, keeping customers or clients safe. This is job-related, and so employers are within their rights to require people to upload their vaccine cards and to make other inquiries about it."
While Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas says there hasn't been discussion on mask and vaccine mandates, she said she's not sure it's "something that we are really interested in imposing on our citizens."
"I, like many people, have been out and about, and it’s so fun to see people smiling and laughing and having fun and enjoying their lives. We want to continue to let people make those choices so they are able to enjoy their families and their friends and live their lives in ways they feel is best," Thomas said. "I think it’s important that they be allowed to make decisions for themselves."
During a media briefing Wednesday, UCHealth said it would not require visitors to be vaccinated, however, masks are required in clinical settings.
The latest state data on vaccination rates shows 71.63% of Coloradans 18 and up have received at least one dose of the vaccine, 69.43% of all eligible Coloradans 12 and up have received a first dose and 66.08% of Coloradans 18 and up are fully vaccinated.
Denver7 reporter Adi Guajardo contributed to this report.