As the war against COVID-19 continues in the state, the Arkansas Medical Society has approved a policy statement in support of mandatory vaccinations among all health care workers.
The approval, which came at last Wednesday's quarterly board meeting, was made in order to help strengthen the long-term ability for health care workers to care for their patients, according to AMS president and chairman of the board Danny Wilkerson, and to set an example for citizens that "the vaccine is not only safe but -- lifesaving."
"The physicians of Arkansas are deeply concerned about their patients and the citizens of our state as we continue to wage a battle with the COVID-19 virus and its highly contagious variants," Wilkerson said in the statement.
"Our ethical obligations, as well as the ethical obligations of most health care workers, teach us to always put patients first. To live up to that moral and ethical standard, it is imperative that we lead by example and take a stand in support of required vaccination for health care workers. That ethical commitment demands that we take appropriate precautions to insure that our fellow physicians and other health care workers are protected from the virus. In doing so, this will allow us to continue performing our patient care responsibilities while also protecting our families, our patients, and our communities," he said.
Garland County health officer and member of the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force, Dr. Gene Shelby, who has been involved with AMS for over 40 years and served as past president and chairman of the board, said Monday he believes this is an important step in the state's health care community.
"I was really pleased that the board is taking this stand and I'm hoping that more organizations will take a similar stand because, you know, we feel like as physicians and as health care workers, we need to really show some leadership," he said.
"I think that this statement is a strong statement from the physicians of Arkansas about how important vaccinations are, again, especially for health care workers. Because you want to -- as a person that's been involved in health care for, you know, decades -- we need to take a leadership role, and the science is behind us and certainly the urgency of getting people vaccinated is so important. And so I'm very pleased that the board did this," he said.
Shelby was in attendance at Wednesday's board of trustees' meeting and noted the decision was unanimous. He said he hopes other organizations, whether they are health care-related or not, will follow the leadership example of AMS in calling for mandatory vaccinations in all kinds of situations. As of Monday morning, he noted 40 to 50% of local first responders were still unvaccinated in Garland County.
"I think that the more that people and organizations get behind the importance of vaccinations, the more organizations and individuals will get vaccinated," he said.
AMS's support comes after CHI St. Vincent's decision earlier this month to require all their employees to be fully vaccinated before Nov. 1 of this year.
"As health care providers we have a responsibility to help end this pandemic and protect our patients, our colleagues and those in our communities," CHI St. Vincent's said in a statement. "Requiring vaccination for our teams is critical to maintaining a safe care environment. Medical and religious exemptions will be available for those who qualify. Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are on the rise again due to the threat of variants, and many communities continue to have low vaccination rates. Our decision to require the COVID-19 vaccination for our teams is rooted in a commitment to keeping our community safe -- and bringing an end to this pandemic as quickly as possible."
While National Park Medical Center has not issued a mandatory vaccination policy for its employees at this time, it continues to strongly encourage and support all team members to become fully vaccinated.
"There is significant evidence that grows daily indicating that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective," NPMC Director of Marketing and Communications Mandy Golleher said Monday.
"Understanding that the situation changes daily, we are committed to carefully evaluating the research and the level of COVID-19 activity in our communities as we make this very important decision independent of approval from the Food and Drug Administration," she said.
"We are also working with our medical staff to provide their local expertise regarding the safety, effectiveness and importance of the vaccines to both our employees and our community at large. We will continue to evaluate our procedures and closely follow guidance from our local, state and federal partners in public health."
According to AMS, more critical to the matter of the mandate's importance is the need to protect the more vulnerable citizens throughout the state, including unvaccinated children, hospital patients, residents of long-term facilities and the immunocompromised. Citing the increasing evidence for the vaccine's safety and effectiveness, AMS said that as of August, over 1 million Arkansans and 163 million Americans have been fully vaccinated with minimal side effects.
"Even more striking is the fact that, according to the Arkansas Department of Health, 98% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in our state between January and July were among people who had not been vaccinated," they said.
Shelby said he believes the mandate is especially important because of the new delta variant and how contagious it is, noting that taking care of patients who are positive or ill with COVID-19 poses a great risk to the unvaccinated health care worker.