Large Idaho primary care group mandates staff COVID vaccines

FILE: COVID-19 vaccine
Jonathan Hayward
FILE: COVID-19 vaccine

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho’s largest independent medical group will require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-September in hopes of keeping clinics open and patients safe when the usual cold and flu season hits school children this fall.

Primary Health Group CEO Dr. David Peterman made the announcement to staffers Thursday. Primary Health has 21 family medicine and urgent care clinics in southwestern Idaho that see about 500,000 patient visits a year. About 130 of its more than 600 employees haven’t yet been vaccinated, Peterman said.

The company has required its staffers to be immunized against other contagious diseases for a decade, including an annual influenza vaccine, with exceptions made for employees with medical or religious exemptions. Requiring a COVID-19 vaccine for workers is the next logical step for keeping clinics open and employees and patients safe, Peterman said.

Several hospital systems nationwide have mandated COVID-19 vaccines for workers, but Peterman said he believes Primary Health may be the first independent medical group to require the vaccine.

“This is the right thing that needs to be done today,” Peterman said. “If you think in terms of a billion vaccine doses being given all over the world — and the serious side effects are extremely rare — you begin to see that it’s our obligation to make sure our clinics are safe.”

Similar mandates have met pushback. More than 100 employees at a Houston hospital system sued over its requirement that staff be vaccinated after they were suspended without pay for failing to follow the rule. Last month a federal judge threw out the lawsuit against Houston Methodist Hospital system, telling the employees that they were free to seek employment elsewhere if they wanted to skip the vaccine, but that a basic part of any job is that employers can place limits on worker behavior in exchange for pay.

Peterman said he accepts that some of his own workers may find the requirement “unacceptable.” Staffers with documented medical exemptions or religious exemptions won’t be required to get the vaccine, but they will have to wear masks and eye protection while in clinics, he said.

“This has nothing to do with politics. It’s not meant as any kind of statement,” he said. “Our intent is to be prepared for what’s coming in the fall.”

Trinity Health, one of the largest hospital systems in the U.S., also announced Thursday that it was requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for employees at its 91 hospitals, including Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise.

Schools in the region open in mid-August. Every year, the clinic sees a rise in viral illnesses about a month after schools open, Peterman said. With children under 12 still unable to receive the vaccine and low vaccination rates among older kids in Idaho, unvaccinated staffers would have to quarantine with coronavirus exposures or symptoms — which can mimic other viral illnesses.

Peterman said he fears a repeat of last year: At one point, 30% of his employees were out because of a positive coronavirus test or exposure, forcing seven clinics to temporarily close. For more than two months, National Guard workers mobilized by order of Idaho Gov. Brad Little helped staff Primary Health facilities, triaging patients and directing them to the right location.

“The key to prevention, the key to treatment, the key to vaccination is primary care clinics,” Peterman said. “So it is absolutely imperative that our clinics are safe and have employees there that can meet their needs. We don’t know what is coming this fall or this winter.”