Thousands apply for exemption as Sanford Health’s COVID-19 vaccination deadline arrives

SIOUX FALLS, S.D.(Argus Leader)- Sanford Health, the state’s largest private employer, began Monday suspending employees, who have not been vaccinated for COVID-19.

The health system announced in July that employees would have until Nov. 1 to begin getting vaccinated or to get an exemption based on health or religious reasons. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected South Dakota since spring 2020, but vaccines were not available for most eligible populations until spring of this year.

The health system did not immediately say how many employees would be suspended.

In a statement to the Argus Leader, Dr. Jeremey Cauwels, Sanford Health’s chief physician, said that employees who hadn’t started their vaccine series by Monday or had not been granted an exemption, would be suspended for up to 60 days without pay.

“Continued failure to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine requirements within 60 days will result in the employee being considered to have voluntarily resigned from their employment,” Cauwels said. “We do not expect more than 1-2% of our staff to leave as a result of the vaccine mandate.”

Sanford employs about 30,000 people across its system. In Sioux Falls, Sanford employs about 9,500 people, making it the city’s top private employer.

Avera Health, the city’s second largest employer, announced in September that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate would go into effect for its employees on Dec. 1.

In October, Sanford reported that it had granted about 3,000 exemptions for its employees.

Health providers across the country face similar mandates. In September, the President Joe Biden’s administration announced any health care provider participating in federal health programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, would be required to have staffs vaccinated for COVID-19.

“There is no question that staff, across any health care setting, who remain unvaccinated pose both direct and indirect threats to patient safety and population health,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said at the time the mandate was announced. “Ensuring safety and access to all patients, regardless of their entry point into the health care system, is essential.”

Sanford’s announcement sparked protests from opponents of forced vaccination, including from those who have already had COVID-19. Some South Dakota lawmakers, meanwhile, want to introduce legislation that would bar private employers from mandating the vaccine.

Gov. Kristi Noem has argued against such legislation, saying businesses in the private sector should be free to implement their own policies while employees are free to seek other jobs.