URBANA — Getting all health care workers in the area vaccinated for COVID-19 is proving to be a tall order.
At least three health systems in the region were already requiring their employees to be vaccinated before Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently made the vaccine mandatory for all health care workers in the state.
Carle Health, OSF HealthCare and Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center are making some progress on employee vaccinations, according to officials for those three systems.
But as of this past week, thousands of health care employees — there and elsewhere — still remained unvaccinated.
Under Pritzker’s order, which was amended to give employers more time to get ready, all health care employees must have at least their first dose of vaccine by Sept. 19 and their second dose by 30 days later. Those who aren’t vaccinated must undergo testing at least once a week.
Urbana-based Carle Health had already adopted a mandatory vaccination policy for its roughly 11,000 employees Aug. 6.
As of this past week, the rate of vaccinated Carle employees had grown from the lower end of 70 percent to nearly 80 percent, including those who have had just first doses, according to Chief Operating Officer Matthew Kolb.
Peoria-based OSF HealthCare has seen its employee vaccination rate increase by more than 15 percent since July 21, when it announced its own mandatory vaccination policy, according to spokeswoman Libby Allison.
As of Sept. 8, 82 percent of OSF’s about 24,000 employees had gotten at least the first vaccine dose, and nearly 70 percent had been fully vaccinated, she said.
Christie Clinic didn’t provide an employee vaccination estimate, but its clinical services director, Michelle Antonacci, said most employees have been vaccinated.
“At the end of July, we began giving Christie Clinic team members advance notice that the COVID-19 vaccine would be added to the list of required vaccinations,” she said. “Following Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s recent announcement that all health care workers are required to receive their initial COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 19, Christie Clinic has set mandates for team members to start their vaccine series by Sept. 19, with their second dose received within 30 days.”
Sarah Bush Lincoln, based in Coles County, told its 2,680 employees in early August that all employees were expected to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 4.
Since then, the rate of vaccinated employees has grown from 54 percent to about 62 percent, according to system spokeswoman Patty Peterson.
Kirby Medical Center in Monticello is following the governor’s order but didn’t have a required vaccination policy for its employees in advance of that, according to CEO Steve Tenhouse.
About 80 to 85 percent of the employees have gotten at least one dose, he said.
‘Educational approach’To help inspire more employees, Sarah Bush Lincoln is taking $50,000 and entering all employees who are fully vaccinated in drawings for 10 $5,000 prizes, she said.
For Sarah Bush Lincoln, which is self-insured, $50,000 would be about the cost of just one employee contracting with COVID-19 and ending up hospitalized, Peterson said.
Carle isn’t offering financial incentives to get employees vaccinated, but it is dealing with objectors individually to listen to their reasons and try to counter misinformation with education, according to Kolb.
“Right now, we’re still in the educational approach, and we have made it a requirement for our team members and we are also listening to their concerns and doing as much as we can from an education standpoint,” he said.
Carle plans to launch a process for employees who want to be exempt from vaccination on religious or medical grounds next week, according to Carle spokeswoman Brittany Simon.
‘I couldn’t breathe’
Nobody needed to order Claudia Ortiz — who cleans the emergency department at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana — to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
She joined Carle this past July but got vaccinated in May. And she often talks to coworkers about the advantages of getting the vaccine.
Ortiz had two big reasons to get vaccinated: One of them is that she’s already had COVID-19 and most definitely didn’t want to get it again.
“I was so sick, I couldn’t breathe,” she recalled.
Ortiz has also seen the impact COVID-19 can have on people, given her job in the emergency department.
“It’s hard to see people get intubated,” she said.
Ortiz’s other big reason was the safety of her family. Three of her four children are old enough to get the vaccine and were vaccinated ahead of their return to school, she said.
In fact, she and her kids were all vaccinated on the same day. And after taking a job-readiness and learning program through Carle, she also persuaded her parents to get vaccinated.
Some people tried to convince her not to get vaccinated, Ortiz recalled. But she opted to believe science and doctors, she said.
“I’m not going to follow what people say,” Ortiz said.
Pritzker’s order set out the minimum requirements for health care employers, but employers can impose more stringent requirements for their staffs if they want — and some have.
More than 20 health systems in Illinois were already requiring employees to get vaccinated ahead of the governor’s order, and some have imposed even stricter requirements, according to Illinois Health and Hospital Association spokesman Danny Chun.
Both Carle and Sarah Bush Lincoln, for example, are requiring unvaccinated employees to wear the more closely fitting N-95 respirator masks, rather than just surgical masks.
And OSF’s own deadline of Sept. 30 for employees to be fully vaccinated stands, Allison said.
“Any mission partner who does not qualify for an exemption and who chooses not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine may be subject to our disciplinary processes, which could result in loss of employment,” she said.
The state order to get vaccinated — or else get tested every week — sounds simple enough. But it doesn’t sound so simple when Carle and Sarah Bush Lincoln officials describe the arrangements that must be made.
At Carle, there’s been considerable collaboration by operations, facilities, clinical staff, human resources and the digital team, according to Simon.
“We know there will be a considerable amount of added strain at our testing locations and in the lab to manage — not only for Carle team members, but also for community members in need of weekly testing as well,” she said.
Carle is offering some additional employee-only testing sites throughout its system, which require trained clinical employees for staffing, and has created a platform for employees who need to submit their proof of testing that connects to an employee database and logs the information, she said.
Peterson said Sarah Bush Lincoln will be offering three employee testing days a week, twice on each of those days, and is scheduling the testing to avoid overwhelming the lab, she said.
Plus, employees who aren’t in Sarah Bush Lincoln’s electronic medical records system need to be registered, so their test results can be recorded, she said.
Supervisors will need to verify the COVID-19 testing status for their employees, and staff will have to be made available to do the testing, Peterson said.
On top of all that is the challenge of talking to individual employees about their objections to getting vaccinated, which could potentially tread on their personal beliefs and private health information, she said.
“It’s a lot more complex than people anticipated,” Peterson said.