Mercy became the first major health care provider in the Joplin area to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 with the announcement Wednesday that vaccinations must be obtained by Sept. 30.

The new requirement comes as the delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly in Missouri, health officials said. Cases and hospitalizations have been on a slow and steady increase in Southwest Missouri for several weeks.

“This decision is about protecting our patients,” said Jeremy Drinkwitz, president of Mercy Hospital Joplin, in a statement. “We’re responsible for keeping our patients safe. It’s the right thing for our co-workers to protect each other. It’s what the Sisters of Mercy, who have served Joplin for almost 125 years, would expect us to do.”

Both Pfizer and Moderna have applied to the Food and Drug Administration for full approval of their COVID-19 vaccines, which is expected soon. Health officials have said COVID-19 vaccines are safe and have proven effective, with more than 171 million Americans already vaccinated.

“We need to stop the transmission of this virus in our community. We need to protect the people we serve and the co-workers who help us do that,” said Dr. Tracy Godfrey, president of Mercy Clinic Joplin, in a statement. “Our goal is to make sure that everyone who serves across Mercy has the life-saving protection the COVID-19 vaccines offer.”

Mercy said it will work with employees to develop a plan for compliance ahead of the scheduled deadline. About 75% of Mercy employees across the Midwest are vaccinated, according to a spokeswoman. Employees not approved for a religious or medical exemption will face disciplinary action including termination, she said.

Freeman Health System doesn’t currently have a policy mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for employees, said Paula Baker, president and CEO. Employees in direct health care positions wear masks regardless of whether they are vaccinated, as required by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in following guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said.

“That said, we strongly encourage employees to get vaccinated,” she said in a statement. “Additionally, we persistently enforce our mask-wearing policy and restricted visitor guidelines for everyone’s health and well-being. In fact, our physicians and other staff have responded very favorably to the need for COVID-19 vaccination. A large percentage of our physicians and direct-care staff have already received the vaccination in one of our many ongoing COVID-19 vaccination clinics.”

CoxHealth, a Springfield-based health system with hospitals in Lamar and Monett, also doesn’t require COVID-19 vaccination to be a condition of employment.

“COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be highly efficacious and safe, can save lives, and end this pandemic. We strongly advocate for their use. However, we understand that many in our community are hesitant to become vaccinated, including some employees,” CoxHealth said in a statement released through a spokesperson. “It appears likely the emergency use authorization, under which vaccines are currently available, may be removed shortly. A decision on the EUA status will further inform our decision about mandating vaccines, and we are hopeful that those that are hesitant may gain further confidence in the vaccine if full approval is granted. Meanwhile, we continue to follow the most strenuous CDC guidelines to assure we have a safe place to work and receive care.”

Mercy isn’t the first health care provider in Missouri to require vaccinations for employees. BJC HealthCare, Washington University, St. Luke’s Hospital and SSM Health all announced last month that they would institute vaccine requirements, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.