Simplified: Sanford Health announced last week it would require employees to have the COVID-19 vaccine by Nov. 1.

Why it matters

  • The decision comes amid increasing national concern over the delta variant, as well as increasing support for vaccine mandates among hospitals nationwide. The day before Sanford's announcement, the National Hospital Association released a statement in support of vaccine mandates.
  • The timing also comes a month after a federal judge in Texas dismissed a lawsuit over a vaccine mandate from employees at a Houston hospital system – though Vice President for Sanford Clinic Dr. Joshua Crabtree said the Sioux Falls health system's decision was an individual one.
  • Sanford is likely the first employer in South Dakota – a state that emphasized personal freedoms over mandates throughout the pandemic – to mandate the vaccine.
"It's important that we all just take a look at ourselves individually and ask, do I want my healthcare provider to provide a safe place for me to come and get my care?" Crabtree said. "If you would want that for yourself, then I think that answers the question as to why we should do this and why it's the right thing to do."

Tell me more about the decision

Sanford President and CEO Bill Gassen said in a release announcing the decision that it was "the right thing to do."

“As more contagious COVID-19 variants continue to spread and threaten our communities, we must do everything we can to protect each other and our loved ones," he said.

Employees were told about the mandate at the same time as the information was released to the public Thursday afternoon.

More than 90 percent of Sanford doctors and clinicians are vaccinated, along with about 80 percent of nurses, Crabtree said.

  • Numbers go down a bit from there, he added, but overall the majority of Sanford employees are already vaccinated and not impacted by this decision.

What's been the reaction to the mandate?

From employees: Overall, the response has been positive, Crabtree said.

"We've had a lot of folks who have come out and said, 'thank you for doing this,'" he said.

From the community:

"I think there are those who likely don't necessarily feel that it's the decision to make," Crabtree said.
  • But he said, while people can make a choice not to be vaccinated, often people don't have a choice about being hospitalized.
"We need to make sure we're providing an environment that is absolutely as safe as we can to those folks," he said.

What happens if an employee doesn't get vaccinated?

That's a bit more nuanced. Sanford hasn't come right out and said employees who don't get vaccinated will be fired.

There are medical and religious exemptions to the mandate, the hospital system said in the initial release announcing the decision.

Right now, it'll be taken on a case-by-case basis, Crabtree said.

What about other hospitals in town?

Avera Health said having a high percentage of people become vaccinated is the only path out of the pandemic, but the hospital system hasn't made a clear decision one way or another on a vaccine mandate for employees.

It's "evaluating the topic," per a statement from the health system.

The Veterans Affairs Health System is another variable in town. Requests for comment were not returned, but on Monday, the federal VA announced a vaccine mandate for employees.

  • It's still unclear what that'll mean for people employed at the Sioux Falls VA Health System.
  • The local VA hospital did not respond to a request for comment.