UW Health joins SSM Health, Prevea and Aurora Health in requiring COVID-19 vaccine for all employees

MADISON, Wis. — All UW Health employees will be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, the provider announced Wednesday.

A press release says in addition to staff, all faculty, students, volunteers and other affiliate individuals will be required to get vaccinated.

UW Health joins SSM Health, Aurora Health, Prevea and Epic Systems in requiring vaccines for all employees.

The updated policy is similar to the health system’s requirement for annual flu vaccinations. Roughly 90% of UW Health staff have already completed the COVID vaccine series, but the health care provider says there is room for improvement.

“With Delta variant and the cases on the rise, the concern about Delta variant being more contagious, we’ve re-evaluated that 90% number and we asked ourselves, ‘Is this good enough?'” said Dr. Jeff Pothof in a pre-recorded interview.  “Do our patients expect our staff to be vaccinated at a 90% level or should it be higher?”

“COVID-19 vaccines are safe,” UW Health said to employees, according to internal communications obtained by News 3 Now. “More than four billion doses have been administered worldwide with an extremely low occurrence of serious adverse reaction. They are highly effective at preventing transmission of COVID-19 and its variants. And for those who do contract COVID-19, they dramatically reduce the possibility of serious illness, hospitalizations and death. COVID-19 vaccines are the most powerful tool in our efforts to end this pandemic.”

The updated vaccination policy will go into effect September 1. The deadline for receiving the first dose of vaccine will be October 1, and employees will be required to get the second dose or a single-dose of vaccine by November 1. Just over 2,000 employees are currently unvaccinated.

At SSM Health, nearly 23% of employees were unvaccinated when a mandate went into place June 28. Since then, the number has dropped to 20%. Still, thousands of employees remain unvaccinated.

“(Our employees) want it to be safe themselves and we wanted to make sure we create a safe environment for patients,” said Mo Kharbat, VP of Pharmacy Services for SSM Health. 

Staff from either healthcare system with a medical condition that prevents them from getting the shot are able to file for an exemption with written documentation and their physician’s signature. Employees can also request exemptions for religious beliefs.

The policy change comes the same week the Wisconsin Medical Society urged all health care providers to mandate the COVID vaccine.

UW Health joins SSM Health in requiring employees and partners to get the vaccine, while Dane County and the City of Madison also made the requirement this week.

At least one lawyer, however, believes he has a case against mandating vaccinations.

Michael J. Anderson, who represented more than a dozen employees fired from Rock Haven Nursing home in Rock County for refusing to comply with the vaccine mandate, says as long as the vaccines remain under and Emergency Use Authorization, they can’t be mandated.

If it’s in that category, clearly federal law says that no employer can mandate that an employee takes a vaccine,” Anderson said. “They certainly can’t predicate your employment upon your doing that.”

Anderson says he’s already gotten calls from SSM Health employees looking for legal representation.

I think there’s good people on both sides that are trying to address a legitimate issue that’s going on right now, but I fall on the side of individual liberties,” Anderson said.  “When federal law supports that, how can I say no to that? They’re valid, strong arguments. I don’t think people who have spent years working for their employers should face going out on the streets because they have a legitimate objection to being told to take this vaccination.”

The legal opinions are pointing in the direction of having a mandate is perfectly legal in these circumstances, that’s why we went ahead with it,” Kharbat said. “We hope we don’t get to face a legal challenge, but if we do we will certainly go through it and we won’t be the first health system in the country to have done that.”