UCHealth and Denver Health will require all staff and volunteers be vaccinated against COVID-19 in the coming months or face termination, the systems announced Wednesday, making them the first major hospital systems in the state to require inoculation.
“After fighting COVID-19 for more than a year, and as the dangerous delta variant has become the dominant strain in Colorado and elsewhere, it is clear that vaccination against this disease is essential to protect our employees, along with our patients and visitors,” Elizabeth Concordia, the president and CEO of UCHealth, said in a statement.
UCHealth and Denver Health's policies will apply to all of its employees. Anyone who hasn't received an exemption will face termination. Both policies cover all employees, providers, interns, trainees, and contractors and vendors. The requirement affects all of UCHealth's 26,000 employees statewide. Denver Health's policy affects about 7,500 people.
The two systems' workforces have already experienced high vaccination rates. UCHealth will require its staff be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1, and Denver Health's deadline is Nov. 1. Anyone seeking an exemption with Denver Health must apply by Oct. 15, the system said.
"There is an abundance of safety and efficacy data for the available COVID-19 vaccines," Denver Health officials wrote in a message to staff Wednesday. "We know that vaccination decreases the risk of COVID-19 infection by 95% and almost eliminates the risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death."
Other health systems, including Centura and HealthONE, have yet to announce or settle on a vaccination requirement plan. Banner Health, which has a smaller presence in Colorado than other systems, previously announced a vaccination requirement.
States, industries and schools are facing decisions about requiring vaccinations as infections and hospitalizations increase.
Colorado officials have not announced whether they're going to require state employees to be vaccinated. Denver Public Schools has said it will make a decision in the coming weeks.
The vaccines are still authorized under emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration. Once they receive the full FDA approval, more hospitals will likely "revisit their policies," Cara Welch, spokeswoman for the Colorado Hospital Association, told the Gazette earlier this month.
UCHealth linked its requirement directly to the spread of the delta variant, a more infectious strain of COVID-19 that's become dominant in Colorado and across the country. Despite a statewide vaccination rate of more than 70%, Colorado's cases have increased in recent weeks as the variant moves, primarily through unvaccinated residents.
"What we're seeing right now with the delta variant is showing what happens when we haven't reached that threshold (of vaccination) to where we have enough protection to prevent continued spread, continued hospitalizations," Michelle Barron, the medical director for infection prevention at UCHealth, said in a news conference Wednesday.
The variant had "raised the state of urgency" within the system to unveil its vaccination policy, she said.
Both systems will allow staff to choose which of the three approved vaccines they receive, and "exemptions will be granted only for valid medical or religious reasons." Any UCHealth employee who receives such an exemption will still be required to mask up every day and receive weekly COVID-19 tests, officials said.
Masks are required for all Denver Health employees in clinics and patient-facing settings, spokeswoman Rachel Hirsch said. A staffer who's been given a vaccination exemption will be "required to mask in all areas clinical and non-clinical," she said.
Baron said she anticipated that some employees wouldn't agree to be vaccinated and would be terminated.
"I think we were all optimistic in late spring and early summer that vaccination rates across the country were going well, the state of Colorado was doing very well, and perhaps we'd reach that critical threshold of herd immunity and we could go back to living our lives," she said. "Clearly, that is not occurring."