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CHI Health official: Vaccine mandates likely for health care workers
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CHI Health official: Vaccine mandates likely for health care workers

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A top official at one of Nebraska's largest hospital systems said COVID-19 vaccine mandates for its employees are likely on the horizon.

Dr. Cary Ward, chief medical officer of CHI Health, said his organization, as well as most other Nebraska hospital systems, are "seriously considering" requiring their employees to get the vaccine.

"We're close to doing it," Ward said, noting that CHI Health, which owns St. Elizabeth and Nebraska Heart hospitals in Lincoln, has had ongoing discussions with major hospital systems in the state, including Nebraska Medicine and Methodist Health in Omaha and Bryan Health in Lincoln, about all announcing such a mandate at the same time.

"Ideally, we would all go together on this," Ward said.

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A Bryan Health spokesman confirmed the health system has been part of the discussions but said in an email that it would likely take the Food and Drug Administration removing the emergency use authorization from the vaccines and giving them full authorization before Bryan would mandate them for employees. Bryan's voluntary vaccination rate so far is 84%.

"Bryan Health’s chief medical officer has been involved in conversations with officials from CHI and Nebraska Medicine," the spokesman said in a statement. "If the FDA removes the emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccines, a decision and announcement will be made."

Nebraska Medicine Chief Medical Officer Dr. Harris Frankel said that while he's "pleased with the high numbers of Nebraska Medicine colleagues who have chosen to receive the vaccine, we are always evaluating what’s best for our staff and patients."

"We believe vaccination of health care workers is essential and we are consulting with our infectious diseases specialists and working with other health systems across Nebraska to determine what is the best option for our organization," he said in a statement.

Calls for mandatory vaccination of health care workers are growing as studies show that anywhere from one-fourth to one-third of those employees have chosen not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

On Monday, representatives of more than 50 health care groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics, called for mandatory vaccination of medical professionals and those who work in long-term care facilities.

In a joint statement, the groups said that with full FDA approval of the currently available vaccines likely coming soon, "all health care workers should get vaccinated for their own health, and to protect their colleagues, families, residents of long-term care facilities and patients. This is especially necessary to protect those who are vulnerable, including unvaccinated children and the immunocompromised."

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The statement noted that many hospitals and long-term facilities already require staff to get other vaccines, such as an annual flu shot.

A number of government entities as well as some private businesses have instituted vaccine mandates. On Monday, the Veterans Administration announced it will require employees who provide direct patient care to get vaccinated, becoming the first federal agency to mandate the COVID-19 shot.

Also on Monday, both New York City and the state of California announced they would require their employees to get vaccinated or face weekly COVID-19 testing.

Creighton University in Omaha earlier this year announced a vaccine mandate for students for the upcoming academic year.

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Ward said there is a lot more data now showing the COVID-19 vaccines are effective and that serious side effects are extremely rare, which makes organizations feel more comfortable about requiring it.

He noted that there is "no comparison" between the small chance the COVID-19 vaccine will cause what are almost always minor side effects "and the complications of the disease."

Ward said it is "heartbreaking" to see seriously ill COVID-19 patients in the hospital who are there because they failed to get vaccinated.

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He said CHI Health has not seen a huge increase in hospitalizations across its 14 Nebraska hospitals, with 32 coronavirus patients currently. While that's more than double where it was a few weeks ago, it's still well below where the system was at its peak, when it had more than 200 patients.

Other hospitals are seeing significant increases, however. Bryan on Monday said it had 27 COVID-19 patients at its two Lincoln hospitals, up from 20 two weeks ago. In early June, the hospital system had fewer than five.

Nebraska Medicine said its 25-person COVID-19 unit is now full again and patients are having to be moved to other areas of the hospital. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a 17% increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Nebraska over the past week with patients now numbering over 100 for the first time in two months.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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