Knox Community Hospital building

Knox Community Hospital

MOUNT VERNON -- Knox County's second-largest employer – and its lone hospital system – will require all employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 1, unless they qualify for religious or medical exemptions.

Knox Community Hospital's senior leadership team made the decision Tuesday afternoon, KCH CEO Bruce White told Knox Pages, following in the footsteps of hospitals across the state as coronavirus cases surge.

“We want to respect each other’s individual rights, but on the other hand, we have a greater calling to keep our patients safe and to keep our workforce safe, so they can care for our patients," White said.

"At a certain point, you have to do what’s right in order to protect your patients.”

Roughly half of Knox Community Hospital's workforce is currently vaccinated, White said, mirroring the state average. KCH employed 1,028 people as of June 2020, according to the Area Development Foundation, making it Knox County's second-largest employer behind Ariel Corporation (1,700).

Certain KCH employees may be exempt from the vaccine requirement, White said.

“You can make a request for exemption for your own personal medical situation, but it needs to be documented by a physician, or you can qualify with a recognized religious belief," he said.

"We have a process (where) those requests are evaluated by a group of people that have the right skill set to evaluate those requests."

Employees who do not qualify for an exemption and do not become fully vaccinated by Dec. 1 will be "in violation of the hospital's employment requirements," White said.

He compared it to the seasonal flu vaccine, which all KCH staff members are required to take annually as a condition of their employment.

"It’s going to be aligned with that, it’s going to mirror it. So if someone chooses not to be vaccinated – which is fine, that’s a personal decision – that’s gonna mean they’re in violation of the hospital’s employment requirements ..." White said. “That means you’re choosing not to work here.”

MAKING THE CALL: White said KCH's senior leadership team had been monitoring several "trigger" factors in recent weeks, to determine "when it would be appropriate to make this decision."

"Some were predicated on the level of incidence in the community," White said. "Some of it had to do with what the different hospital associations were telling us, and what was happening elsewhere.”

Knox County has recorded more than 100 new coronavirus cases over the last two weeks, according to Knox Public Health, marking a sharp increase from weeks prior.

Roughly 94 percent of Knox County's positive cases since July 1 have been unvaccinated individuals, the health department reported, with five hospitalized and several taken to the intensive care unit.

The American Hospital Association released a statement July 21 "strongly (urging) the vaccination of all health care personnel." It also expressed support for hospitals and health systems that "adopt mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies, with local factors and circumstances shaping whether and how mandatory policies are implemented."

The Ohio Hospital Association followed suit shortly thereafter, announcing Monday that it recommended Ohio hospitals "independently adopt policies requiring COVID-19 vaccination for employees and staff, with local factors determining whether, how and when such policies are implemented."

OHA President and CEO Mike Abrams cited the more contagious delta variant as a key factor in this decision.

“The COVID-19 delta variant is a game changer in our fight to overcome this pandemic," he said in a statement. "Low vaccination rates across Ohio and the country endangers not only the unvaccinated, which includes children under 12 years old and individuals who are immunocompromised, but invites continued mutations of even more dangerous strains of the virus to develop, putting the health of our communities at serious risk.

"Scientific evidence and real-world experience show COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. The science and the safety behind the vaccines are very encouraging and Ohio hospitals have engaged in education campaigns – both internal and external – demonstrating the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

"Hospital employee and staff vaccination against COVID-19 will help ensure the long-term ability of our health care system to respond to the pandemic and the continuation of vital health care services.”

After the OHA released its guidance Monday, White said "the dominos all fell pretty quickly, one after another."

Knox Community Hospital's senior leadership team met Tuesday afternoon to make the decision. It was then approved by the hospital board, White said, and management-level staffers were alerted that evening. The entire workforce was made aware of the mandate Wednesday morning.

Knox Community Hospital is not the first hospital in Ohio to impose a COVID-19 vaccine requirement. Columbus-area Mount Caramel Health issued its mandate July 8. OhioHealth, Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, and Nationwide Children's Hospital made a similar announcement Tuesday, following the OHA's guidance.

It's unclear how many independent, rural Ohio hospitals, like KCH, have issued the mandate at this point. Regardless, White predicted most would do so soon.

“I don’t know specifically of any I could point to that have announced it," he said. "I do know that, once the dominos start to fall, they fall kind of quickly. My anticipation is that the other hospitals similar to ours will probably be following suit if they haven’t done it already.”

A NEW MANDATE: When KCH mandated the seasonal flu vaccine "several years ago," White said it came about under different circumstances.

"We had more time to implement it, (so) we actually gradually implemented that requirement through multiple stages over the course of a couple of years. So people had a lot of time to know the requirement was out there, and they could adjust," White recalled.

"Given the advent of this situation and the increased incidence of COVID spread, no one is going to have the luxury of taking a couple years to implement this."

Still, White seemed confident that KCH's workforce would accept the new mandate. He said the implementation of the seasonal flu vaccine requirement "went fairly smoothly," and he expects a similar result here.

“I look at this and compare it to the implementation of the requirement for the seasonal flu vaccine. That went well and our staff rose to the occasion," he said.

"And again, if you do the right things with the right objective and the right purpose, people get that. Our first mission is to provide compassionate, safe care to our patients, and the best way we can do that is to make sure they don’t run the risk of infection or that we don’t have a workforce to care for them.

“Health care workers have been great throughout the pandemic, and this is just the next challenge. It’s not easy, I get that. I understand that ... But this is why I love this industry, and I love working here – the people are in it for the right reasons, and they’re gonna make the right choices.”

White, who sits on the American Hospital Association's Board of Trustees and works closely with the Ohio Hospital Association, said he chose to get vaccinated “as soon as I was eligible and it made sense.” He said he felt a "personal obligation" to help protect himself and others in the community.

“Personally, I believe in the science," he said. "I believe it’s the right thing to do – and not just to protect myself … you get vaccinated because it protects you, but one of the most important reasons (to get vaccinated) is it prevents you from spreading the disease to other people.”

In light of the new mandate, White said KCH will look to bolster its vaccine clinic in the coming weeks.

"We had them when it first came out, and it was very active down there, and then just like the general population, the demand started to drop off," he said. "So now we know we’ll have to make sure there are adequate opportunities for those people to get vaccinated.”

According to the Ohio Department of Health, 22,736 Knox County residents – or 36 percent of the eligible population – have received at least the one dose of vaccine. This lags behind the state average of 49 percent.

White said the county's goal should be to reach, and surpass, the state average. He hopes this will be a turning point for those who may have been hesitant to receive the vaccine so far.

“I encourage and applaud health care workers for stepping up and doing the right thing, and protecting themselves and their friends and family members. I hope the general public – and for those who have been hesitant – I hope they view this as the appropriate step for them as well ..." White said.

"The vaccines are safe – millions of people have been vaccinated around the world – and even if you do get COVID after getting vaccinated, which there is a minimal chance of, it severely limits the ramifications of getting COVID. So I hope the general public who may have been hesitant reconsider their thoughts on that and decide that vaccines are probably the way to go.”

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.