In a change of course, Avera Health will be requiring its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, joining a growing list of health care organizations.

On Tuesday, Avera Health officials announced it will be requiring all of its employees, volunteers and physicians to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 1. The vaccine requirement also applies to “contracted workers, vendors” and students who are rotating at Avera facilities.

“As a health care ministry, Avera is called upon to provide a safe and protective environment for our patients, their families and our employees. This is consistent with our mission and values,” said David Erickson, chief medical and innovation officer at Avera Health. “For decades, vaccination has been an important tool in public health. Avera has long been requiring vaccinations among its employees for influenza and other infectious diseases like measles.”

However, Avera Health officials say it will consider exemptions for “employees with medical contraindications and sincerely held religious beliefs.” For employees who receive an exemption, they will be required to wear “appropriate personal protective equipment and comply with regular COVID-19 testing and other preventive measures.”

With the recent decision to require vaccines, Avera joined a growing list of healthcare organizations that have enacted similar policies to combat the spread of COVID-19, which has been rapidly spreading across much of the country that some healthcare officials deem is likely fueled by the emerging Delta Variant.

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“Avera is an amazing, quality-driven organization. We want our employees to enjoy working in a safe and collaborative environment. Requiring a COVID-19 vaccine is consistent with our other Human Resources policies,” said Kim Jensen, chief human resources officer at Avera Health. “We already require annual vaccination against flu and we require a record of immunizations for new hires.”

One of South Dakota’s largest healthcare providers, Sanford Health, required its staff to be fully vaccinated in July. Since then, Avera Health had been gauging its employees on a possible vaccine requirement.

In August, Doug Ekeren, CEO of Avera Queen of Peace hospital in Mitchell, said a survey asking Avera Health staff about their thoughts on a vaccine mandate for employees was being circulated, which he said officials would consider in its decision to implement an employee vaccine requirement.

According to Jensen, a majority of employees voiced support for requiring vaccination in the surveys.

“The majority of our employees have already turned to vaccination to protect themselves, their families and their patients,” Jensen added.

While Erickson touted the COVID-19 vaccines as "safe and effective," there are many Americans who have opted out of receiving the vaccine for reasons that vary. As of Tuesday, roughly 53% of Americans have been fully vaccinated against the virus.

“Millions of people have safely received the vaccines. With over half of the U.S. population vaccinated plus millions across the world, COVID vaccines are among the most tested vaccines ever,” Erickson said. “Adverse reactions are extremely rare.”

Avera’s employee vaccine requirement comes after the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Aug. 23.

Avera health officials noted a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that unvaccinated people are “29 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than those who are vaccinated.” As of Tuesday, 42% of South Dakotans have been fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health.

“COVID vaccines are doing what they’re supposed to do – and that’s reducing hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19. No vaccine can offer absolute protection. But the fact remains that the most effective thing people can do to prevent the spread of COVID is to get vaccinated,” said Kevin Post, chief medical officer for Avera Medical Group.