PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Starting Nov. 1, most employees with Banner Health will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 on condition of employment.
On Monday, US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra signed a renewal of the determination that a "public health emergency" exists due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to a press release from the medical group, the decision was made to "protect patients, team members, and the community." There will be limited exceptions, but all team members have until Nov. 1 to be fully vaccinated. The release did not detail what the exceptions would be.
"We care for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and we owe it to them to take every measure possible to ensure the safest care environment," said Peter Fine, president and CEO for Banner Health, in a company-wide email on Jul. 20. "We are taking this step to reduce risk for our patients, their families, visitors, and each other. Safety is an absolute top priority, and the COVID vaccine mandate reflects that commitment. The vaccine data has fully supported the safety and efficacy to prevent disease and reduce its severity. There is overwhelming evidence for us to act on behalf of the communities that rely on us to care for and protect them."
Banner Health plans to implement this requirement for several reasons, including the rise of the Delta variant, the pending life of the Emergency Use Authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, the decision to protect its patients and workforce, and prepare for the upcoming flu season. According to Banner officials, national data shows that 97% of current hospitalizations and 99% of COVID-19 deaths are among the unvaccinated. "This is becoming a pandemic of unvaccinated individuals," said Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ.
Banner Health states it will release more information in the coming weeks, including an exemption request process. Banner Health employs roughly 52,000 team members and is the largest private employer in the state of Arizona. Headquartered in Arizona, Banner Health is one of the country's largest nonprofit health care systems.
"I think they're going to lose a lot of staff members," said Patricia Olivas, an X-ray technician who used to work at a Banner Urgent Care center. Olivas is a health care worker who does not want the vaccine and feels this is wrong for Banner to force it onto employees. "They're taking the choice away from someone and we make our own choices. Why should we have an employer say you need this?" Olivas said.
But other health care workers said this is a fantastic move. Dr. Sam Durrani is the surgeon chief of staff at Deer Valley Medical Center and believes he and every health care worker has a duty to do the most they can to protect patients who are already vulnerable.
"I think it's really important that health care workers get vaccinated not only to protect themselves but, we're given this opportunity. We're blessed to be able to take care of people when they're the sickest. The worst thing that we can do is make them more sick," Durrani said.
Dr. Christ said getting vaccinated is how we curb the Delta variant spread and said there's a reason why health care workers were the first ones the state made eligible to receive the vaccine. "We obviously value our health care providers and prioritized them first because we don't want them to get sick or pass it to vulnerable patients," Christ said.
Arizona's Family reached out to several hospital networks to see if any others would be adopting mandatory vaccination policies. HonorHealth provided the following statement:
"HonorHealth continues to offer options for employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. At this time, while HonorHealth strongly encourages employees to get the vaccine to help protect them against COVID-19, the vaccine is not mandatory. We are currently evaluating our policies and options to ensure the safety of our team members, providers, volunteers, patients and visitors."
In a statement from an Abrazo Health spokesperson, the health care group said it supports vaccinations for the community and its employees; however, it does not require employees to get vaccinated while the vaccines are still under an emergency use authorization. "We are closely monitoring trends and are making adjustments daily to ensure our staff, physicians, and patients are protected," the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for Valleywise Health said employees are required to get the flu shot, and officials are "evaluating" whether to adopt a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination.
Employment attorney Joshua Black says Arizona workers confronted with policies they disagree with can either take it or leave it. Black says hospitals were expected to be among the first to implement COVID-19 vaccination requirements, but he says companies that do it right will have a conversation with employees who have concerns. Black says simply requiring the vaccine is not discrimination.
"It could become discriminatory if, for instance, I have a sincerely held religious belief," says Black. "If I'm just saying, 'Hey, you know, when I grew up my parents weren't big on vaccines, I don't trust the vaccine,' you're probably not going to have much choice there."