As of last week, employees, contractors and volunteers with the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, which operates in Haines and 18 other communities, must show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or risk losing their jobs or access to the facilities.

Exceptions will be allowed for staff who are pregnant or breastfeeding, have a history of anaphylaxis or allergy to the vaccine, or “persons whose sincere religious observances and practices related to life, purpose or death oppose vaccines,” according to the policy. “Documentation from a religious leader will be required.”

Employees who choose not to be vaccinated and have not received an approved exemption “will be considered as ‘voluntarily separated’ from employment with SEARHC,” according to the policy.

“Over 98% of SEARHC employees are compliant with the vaccination policy,” Maegan Bosak, senior director of lands and property management, based in Sitka, said in a July 2 email.

The health care provider has 1,230 employees, with 69 in Haines.

In addition to Haines and Sitka, SEARHC operates in Klukwan, Skagway, Angoon, Gustavus, Juneau, Pelican, Hoonah, Kake, Petersburg, Wrangell, Ketchikan, Craig, Kasaan, Klawock, Hydaburg, Metlakatla and Thorne Bay.

“Vaccination has been the key element in slowing down the pandemic and offers the promise of aiding in ending the pandemic,” Bosak said.

“SEARHC is committed to the health and safety of patients and staff. A policy has been implemented successfully across the consortium to vaccinate all staff against COVID-19, in addition to screening at entry and requiring masks in all clinical facilities,” she said.

In a May 24 email to all SEARHC staff and contractors, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Elliot Bruhl wrote: “The health of our patients and communities is our top priority and an ongoing concern with the pandemic. … Similar to our policy for employees and contractors being vaccinated for influenza, it will now be required for our consortium’s staff, external providers, students and contractors to have their COVID-19 vaccine.”

Employees, contractors and others who do not receive their vaccinations at a SEARHC facility will be required to show proof of immunization, according to the policy.

“New hires must present proof to SEARHC that they have received their first COVID-19 vaccination or the single-dose vaccination prior to their first day of employment,” the policy said. “Barring an approved exception, new hires must receive their second scheduled COVID-19 vaccination on their scheduled date.”

A growing number of hospitals and other health care providers, universities and private employers nationwide are requiring that their employees show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. The virus has killed more than 603,000 people in the country and sickened more than 33 million, according to July 4 statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A federal court in Texas on June 12 dismissed a case challenging a hospital’s mandatory vaccination policy for employees. It was the first federal court ruling on the legality of employers requiring vaccinations and dismissing employees who refuse to comply.

The suit was filed by 117 Houston Methodist employees who objected to the policy, about 0.4% of the 25,000 employees at the health care system.