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Some hospitals, including MultiCare, will require employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19

Some hospitals in Washington state – including MultiCare facilities in Spokane – will require their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of working there.

The Washington State Hospital Association and the Washington State Medical Association both support vaccine requirements in hospitals and asked their members to consider such policies.

“This is a big deal, we know vaccine requirements are controversial, but we think it’s the right thing to do,” Cassie Sauer, CEO of the hospital association, told reporters Monday.

In the Inland Northwest, some hospitals are adopting this requirement, while others are not.

All MultiCare hospital and clinic employees will have to get vaccinated against COVID-19 starting this fall. Details are still being worked out, and more information is being distributed to employees in the coming weeks.

“At the end of the day, every patient puts their life in our hands, and it’s our duty to protect them,” Florence Chang, chief operating officer of the MultiCare Health System, said Monday.

This means all of the MultiCare Rockwood clinics, as well as Deaconess and Valley hospitals, will require their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine soon. Similarly, Kaiser Permanente announced a systemwide vaccine mandate set for Sept. 30 for all employees, unless they apply for a medical or religious exemption.

Providence hospitals have not followed suit, however.

Providers at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital are not required to get vaccines. The hospitals keep track of each employee’s vaccination status, requiring everyone to provide proof of vaccination or a written declination.

“Our COVID-19 vaccination policy may change over time, as we continue to learn more about the virus, instances in our communities continue and public health recommendations evolve,” a statement from the organization says. “We are seeing vaccination mandates across the health care industry and it’s something we’re monitoring closely.”

Across the state line, Kootenai Health also is not requiring its employees to get vaccinated, although administrators strongly encourage it.

Hospital administrators and physicians have argued that vaccine mandates are necessary, especially with hospital capacity tight and the delta variant surging. Sauer said some hospitals are fearful of losing staff if they implement a mandate, but some experts argue that not requiring vaccines could lead to even worse outcomes at hospitals.

Dr. John Lynch, a doctor and infectious disease professor at the University of Washington, said the delta variant is so transmissible that is poses a great risk to unvaccinated people, including unvaccinated health care workers.

“You will get COVID; this will find you, especially if you’re in a setting where others are unvaccinated,” Lynch said.

And if health care workers test positive, that doesn’t just impact them, Lynch said.

“They will get exposed or infected, and then you’ll be dealing with much larger staff loss across the board,” he said, noting that exposures can lead to more quarantine requirements as well as additional cases.

The vast majority of physicians in Washington state have been vaccinated, according to a survey from the Washington State Medical Association. And while many larger, urban hospitals boast high vaccination rates among their staff, not all hospitals have similar numbers, especially those in more rural settings, Sauer said.

Ultimately, hospital leaders and experts stressed the effectiveness and the safety of the vaccines in keeping not only caregivers safe but also those around them safe.

“Patients need to feel safe when they come in, and patients need to know that their health care workers are vaccinated when they go in,” Dr. Nariman Heshmati, vice president of WSMA, told The Spokesman-Review.

Hospital officials and physicians asked those who have not been vaccinated to do so, as well as for everyone to continue wearing masks regardless of vaccination status.

Without more people getting vaccinated, experts worry about what fall could bring.

“I really worry that we are pretty much at max (capacity) with the number of beds occupied and people staffing that across all the specialties in medicine,” Lynch said. “If we don’t get people fully vaccinated, we are going to run into way more trouble.”

If fewer people heed mask recommendations, this fall and winter could bring more stress to hospitals. Dr. Nathan Schlicher, an emergency room physician and president of WSMA, said that for the first time in 20 years, he didn’t treat a single flu patient last year, thanks to masks.

“Now we’re looking at a winter where we’re not masking that we’ll have flu, COVID and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), and we’re already at capacity and having people wait in our ERs to get a bed – that to me is a hugely daunting task,” Schlicher said.

A look at local numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 119 new COVID-19 cases on Monday and 93 new case over the weekend. The district also confirmed an additional death.

There have been 685 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.

There are 55 people hospitalized with the virus in Spokane hospitals.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 221 new virus cases on Monday and over the weekend and three additional deaths.

There have been 331 deaths due to COVID-19 in Panhandle residents.

There are 40 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.