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Ochsner Mandates COVID Vaccine For Staff As Louisiana Marks Deadliest Day Of The Pandemic

Ochsner Baptist Medical Center. March 25, 2020.
Patrick Madden
Ochsner Baptist Medical Center. March 25, 2020.

Ochsner Health will soon require all staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19, officials announced on Tuesday, as Louisiana recorded its deadliest day of the pandemic.

The state recorded another 139 deaths from COVID-19, the highest number of daily deaths reported by health officials during the pandemic. The previous record was 129 deaths, reported on April 14, 2020. The death toll has now surpassed 12,000 deaths, for a new total of 12,116.

Ochsner is the largest health system in Louisiana and the latest major employer in the state to announce a vaccine mandate after the Pfizer-BioNTech shot gained full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday.

The health system will require all physicians, providers and employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 29, 2021.

“This policy is the right thing to do to protect our employees, their families, and our patients,” said Ochsner Health CEO Warner Thomas in a statement.

“Healthcare workers have experienced unbelievable challenges and sacrificed so much over the last 18 months to keep our patients and community safe. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and more than that, we owe them meaningful action,” he said.

Ochsner said in a statement that the mandate includes “all leaders, physicians, employees and new hires and applies to clinical and corporate full-time and part-time workers at Ochsner Health owned facilities.”

It also includes “all vendors, medical and allied health students, contract employees, PRN, agency nurses and volunteers.”

That means that all the system’s partners and affiliates will need to fully vaccinate staff who work at Ochsner-owned facilities, and any group contracted to provide services of any kind at an Ochsner facility will only be able to staff those contracts with vaccinated employees.

Ochsner officials had said they would implement a mandate upon full FDA approval of a COVID-19 vaccine, fearing legal action if they required vaccinations before then. Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System announced in early August that it would begin to require vaccinations for staff.

About 66 percent of staff at Ochsner Health are fully vaccinated, up from late July, when the rate was 61 percent. Ochsner officials have said the figure is far higher for physicians than other professions, and vaccinations have been slowly ticking up as the fourth surge engulfed hospitals; nearly 69 percent of staff now have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Warner blamed misinformation for stalling efforts to improve vaccinations among staff, despite what officials have described as numerous efforts to educate staff, including information sessions with specialists to explain false information and conspiracies around the vaccines.

“As healthcare providers, it is our responsibility to lead by example, while protecting our employees and our patients from the spread of this highly contagious delta variant,” said Dr. Robert Hart, the chief medical officer at Ochsner Health.

Ochsner runs 40 hospitals and over 100 urgent care and health care centers in Louisiana. It employs 32,000 people across the state and neighboring Mississippi.

Health care staff shortages have plagued efforts to respond to the delta surge over the past two months, and hospital officials across Louisiana have repeatedly said that it’s not space or equipment limiting their ability to treat people — it’s staff.

As a result, hospitals have rejected transfer requests from smaller hospitals for people suffering from heart attacks or car accidents. Care that is vital, but not urgent, is being delayed. In early August, Ochsner canceled 1160 surgeries and procedures scheduled across Louisiana. It has had to shutter operating rooms and redeploy staff to aid in the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

The Louisiana Department of Health reports 3,814 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday. Hospitalizations rose slightly to 2,856, with 480 of those on ventilators. According to the department, 89 percent of cases, 91 percent of hospitalizations and 80 percent of deaths are among those not fully vaccinated.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of fully vaccinated staff at Ochsner Health.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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