BISMARCK — With pressure on North Dakota hospitals to get their employees vaccinated against COVID-19, some health care providers have seen their inoculation rates rise in recent months, while others refused to release information about their progress.

Several of the state’s largest health systems are in the home stretch of internal vaccination campaigns ahead of looming, self-imposed November deadlines. Leaders at hospitals that have required the shot as a condition of employment say widespread vaccination is an important step in ensuring safe interactions with patients and maintaining a healthy workforce amid severe staffing shortages.

In July, Sanford Health became the first hospital system in the region to mandate vaccination among its employees, setting a Nov. 1 deadline for all staff members to be fully vaccinated or approved for exemptions from the shot — or risk losing their jobs. The announcement from the Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based provider preceded a cascade of vaccine mandates among other hospitals in North Dakota, including Essentia Health in Fargo, Altru in Grand Forks and CHI Health in Bismarck and several rural counties.

At Fargo’s Sanford hospitals, 95% of staff were fully vaccinated and an unknown number of employees had successfully claimed a medical or religious exemption to the shot as of Wednesday, Oct. 20, said spokesman Nathan Aadmodt. The state’s largest medical center has seen staff vaccination rates rise almost 5% in the last two weeks, he noted.

Sanford Medical Center Fargo is seen Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, at 5225 23rd Ave. S.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Sanford Medical Center Fargo is seen Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, at 5225 23rd Ave. S. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

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Erin Johnson, a spokeswoman for Sanford Bismarck, said more than 90% of employees at the capital city hospital are fully vaccinated, though she didn’t know the exact inoculation rate.

While several North Dakota providers have seen steady uptake of the vaccine over the last few months, the full picture of inoculation among health care workers isn’t in focus. Major providers like Essentia, CHI and Minot’s Trinity Health declined to provide specifics on their vaccination levels.

Dr. Stephen McDonough, a retired Bismarck pediatrician and former state health official, said hospitals should disclose their staff vaccination rates in the interest of transparency for patients but likely refused to answer questions because the levels are “not where they ideally should be” — around 98%.

“I think (the hospitals) are probably embarrassed that the immunization levels aren’t higher than they are,” McDonough said.

CHI Health, which operates one of Bismarck’s two hospitals in addition to facilities in Dickinson and Williston, declined to provide specifics on the vaccination rates in any of its hospitals.

In an email, spokesman Jeremy Fettig cited “privacy and the sensitive nature” of the vaccines as reasons for withholding the data and also noted inoculation numbers are still changing with the provider’s Nov. 1 deadline just over a week away. He said CHI plans to continue encouraging employees to get vaccinated “even beyond” the deadline.

Essentia Health told Forum News Service more than 98% of staff across the Duluth-based health system have either gotten vaccinated or applied for an exemption, but spokesman Louie St. George III refused to detail the vaccination rate at the company’s Fargo hospital or disclose the number of employees who claimed an exemption.

St. George said the company will try to retain its employees but won’t know the extent of the vaccine mandate’s impact on its workforce until all requests for exemptions have been reviewed.

One hospital without a vaccine requirement also withheld specifics on the progress of its inoculation effort. Mary Muhlbradt, a spokeswoman for Trinity Health, which also operates a long-term care facility in Minot, said only that “100% of the employees who want to be vaccinated are vaccinated.”

Tim Blasl, president of the North Dakota Hospital Association, said some medical centers may not want to release information on their staff vaccination rates because they expect the inoculation rate to rise before their mandates take effect next month.

While Blasl said he wasn’t able to compile a single statewide immunization rate for hospital staff, he noted facilities with mandates generally have higher vaccine uptake than those without vaccine requirements.

The Fargo Veterans Affairs hospital, which has federally implemented vaccine requirements, also reported high compliance with their policy. Ross Tweten, a spokesperson for the Fargo VA, said more than 90% of the hospital’s employees have been vaccinated, a share they expect to keep rising ahead of a deadline for non-medical staff next month.

In Grand Forks, Altru reported that 77% of its employees were fully vaccinated as of Oct. 14, up almost 12 percentage points from the time of the provider’s mandate announcement in August. Spokeswoman Annie Bonzer said 10% of Altru staff have been approved for medical, religious or philosophical exemptions, and the hospital is still working to get the remainder of its employees in compliance before their mid-November deadline.

Altru Hospital is located at 1200 S. Columbia Road. File photo
Altru Hospital is located at 1200 S. Columbia Road. File photo

Meanwhile, Jamestown Regional Medical Center has not implemented a mandate and reported a 64% staff vaccination rate as of Wednesday, said Marketing Manager Katie Ryan-Anderson. That’s only 10% higher than Stutsman County’s vaccination rate for eligible residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ryan-Anderson said leadership at the 25-bed facility is still considering whether to issue a shot requirement and expects the federal government to create a mandate for all hospitals anyway.

Still, North Dakota’s hospitals with vaccine requirements aren’t worried about losing staff who refuse to get inoculated, said Blasl, who noted vaccine-skeptic employees have been able to avoid the mandates through medical and religious exemptions.

McDonough said only a slim fraction of employees have a legitimate reason to skirt the mandate, adding hospitals should want the immunization rate close to 100% to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks among staff during a time when the facilities need all hands on deck. However, McDonough acknowledged that hospitals are “between a rock and a hard place” because of staffing shortages and can’t afford to let qualified staffers walk away.

Many of the hospitals that have not mandated the shot, particularly those in rural areas, are waiting for a federal COVID-19 vaccine requirement to drop, Blasl said. Once guidance from Washington comes out, facilities will have a better idea of how quickly they need to get their employees vaccinated, he said.

Contact Jeremy Turley at jturley@forumcomm.com or Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.