Skico, Aspen hospital issue vaccination mandates
Aspen Valley Hospital and Aspen Skiing Co. are enacting policies that will require their employees to get fully vaccinated ahead of the winter season.
Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan announced the new policy Tuesday and David Ressler, CEO of AVH, discussed the mandate at Monday’s board of directors meeting. Both organizations’ top executives said vaccinations will be a condition of the workers’ employment unless they cite religious or medical reasons to opt out. Skico’s deadline for employees to get fully vaccinated is Nov. 15; AVH has an Oct. 31 deadline.
“While 90% of us have been vaccinated, we remain exposed in certain departments and as a community given how easily the Delta variant spreads,” Kaplan said in an email sent to employees. “We all value autonomy and freedom of choice in this country. However, when our individual choices affect the wellbeing of our fellow employees and community members, as an organization we must look through a broader lens that prioritizes our collective safety and wellbeing.”
That 90% figure pertains to active Skico employees, according to Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications. Employment numbers fluctuate with the seasons, Hanle said, also noting Skico has a staff of approximately 1,500 part- and full-time employees during the summer season and 4,000 during the winter.
The polices were declared in response to the delta variant’s persistence as the colder months draw nearer, and also came after President Biden’s announcement Thursday that companies with at least 100 employees must require them to get vaccinated. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, under the Department of Labor, will draft the policy estimated to affect 80 million workers.
Pitkin County is expected Wednesday to announce a new indoor-mask mandate that takes effect Thursday. Earlier in the day, a meeting between Pitkin County and hospital officials will take place to discuss the status of the AVH’s operations. The county and AVH have been meeting on Wednesdays to get the hospital’s most updated information in the three metrics that measure its operational efficiency — the number of essential health-care workers out with COVID-19 or its symptoms, the average daily visits, and impatient hospitalization and transfer capacity. Those three categories have been under the cautious level since last week, Ressler said.
At Monday’s board meeting, Ressler noted the county’s incidence rate “continues to hover” around 200 per 100,000 residents, while the positivity rate has been consistently 5% or higher, which he said is a cause for concern.
“We just know there’s a lot of virus in the community,” he said, adding the 25-bedroom hospital has “transfer challenges” when other hospitals in the area start filling up.
“So when that happens for us, we may eventually get the patent transferred … but we have to maintain the patient here while we’re trying to find a bed,” he said.
Recently the hospital had to transfer a 1-year-old patient with COVID-19 to another facility with a “higher level of care,” said Ressler, stressing the vulnerability of the younger population to the delta strain.
The hospital also has seen break-through cases — people afflicted with COVID-19 even though they are fully vaccinated — yet Ressler cited a vaccination study’s findings that 90% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States are patients who have not been vaccinated. On Tuesday, Pitkin County officials said a fully vaccinated resident died over the weekend due to the virus; it is the fifth death in the county since the pandemic started in March 2020.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study examined 600,000 cases from April through July, concluding unvaccinated people are four-and-one-half times more likely than vaccinated people to get the coronavirus, 10 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 11 times more likely to die from the disease.
The Aspen hospital has had its vaccination policy in the works; at its Aug. 9 monthly board meeting, the medical executive committee, through chief of staff Dr. Catherine Bernard, recommended that the hospital require all of its health-care workers, physicians and staff to become fully vaccinated. And on Aug. 30, the state Board of Health passed an emergency mandate requiring all hospital and health care facility workers to have their first vaccination dose by Sept. 30 and their second by Oct. 31. AVH will follow that timeline also.
The hospital’s staff was informed last week of the mandate. Currently, 89% already are fully vaccinated and 90% are either partially vaccinated or are in the process of getting a vaccination, according to hospital officials.
“We’re having broad discussions with our staff, answering questions,” said Ressler.
Hospital officials do not anticipate much resistance to the requirement, but there will be some, they acknowledged.
“AVH anticipates that there will be some employees who will choose to not become vaccinated and either request a medical or religious exception, or ultimately leave employment,” said Jennifer Slaughter, the hospital’s director of community relations, in an email. “However, AVH Employee Health practitioners are working hard to provide every employee with information, answer questions, and assure properly informed decisions.”
Likewise, Hanle said some resistance is to be expected from Skico employees.
Kaplan’s letter to employees said: “I can assure you this decision is not being taken lightly and that it has included plenty of lively debate and diverse opinions. However, the fact that we have safe FDA-approved vaccines that greatly reduce spread, the severity of illness and the risk of hospitalization or death means we can beat this pandemic if we all do our part.
“I truly hope you will all stay with us and get your shots if you haven’t already since we face a critical point in the fight against Covid and it’s no secret that every employee is more valuable than ever given our shortage of staff. So, we are here and prepared to discuss any concerns on an individual basis and to support any of you who may choose to transition out of ASC.”
According to AVH’s forms for workers seeking exempt status because of religious or medical reasons, they will be required to “complete regular COVID-19 surveillance testing at intervals determined by Employee Health. I may also be required to submit to other mitigation measures such as additional PPE usage, social distancing, modified schedules, modified work location, reassignment, a temporary leave of absence, or any other reasonable accommodation, which Aspen Valley Hospital determines, would reduce the risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus to me, our patients, our workforce and our community. My failure to comply with mitigation measures may be the basis for disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment/assignment.”
One of the larger unanswered questions is when booster shots will be available, Ressler said.
“That’s the No. 1 question we get from our staff when we’re talking about vaccines, not about the mandate, but when can I get my booster,” he said. “Everyone’s concerned that their defense is waning, but that’s not based on the data, starting to emerge … there’s still a high level of protection, even six months out.”
The Aspen Skiing Co. announced Tuesday that its Premier Pass, which comes with unlimited skiing and no blackout dates, is now available for $1,699 to chamber members if it’s purchased by the super-early deadline of Sept. 16.
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