Lancaster County’s two Republican commissioners waded into personnel issues outside their purview during Wednesday’s public meeting, taking Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health to task for its new employee COVID-19 vaccine policy.
Hospital employees and clinical staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 1, and starting July 1 new hires will be required to provide verification of or complete vaccination two weeks prior to their start date. Employees can seek an exemption for religious or medical reasons in much the same way they currently do for the influenza vaccine, which is already required.
Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino directed their displeasure with the policy at Dr. Michael Ripchinski, LGH chief clinical officer.
As the site director of the Lancaster County Community Vaccination Center at Park City Center, Ripchinski has become the face of the county’s COVID-19 response and vaccination effort. LGH is the lead health care partner with the county in this effort.
“People should be making this decision upon consulting their own medical provider and their conscience,” said D’Agostino, reading from a prepared statement at Wednesday’s commissioners meeting.
D’Agostino, who said he is not anti-vaccination, added, “My concern arises out of a belief that people should not be forced to accept medical treatment through an injection of a vaccine in order to maintain their livelihood, particularly a new vaccine still under emergency authorization.”
Parsons, who also read from a prepared statement, called the new requirement “counterproductive” and “a heavy-handed approach” to protecting staff and patients, the health system’s stated goal.
Parsons and D’Agostino declined to say more on the matter. Instead they referred questions to their written statements, both of which touted being at the White House when former President Donald Trump announced Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development.
In response to commissioners, Ripchinski said employees can pursue an exemption and that management is actively seeking staff feedback. He cited a company town hall held Tuesday that drew more than 100 employees.
“The safety of our patients and employees is our top priority,” Ripchinski said.
LGH CEO John Herman — in his first interview with LNP | LancasterOnline on Monday — said the health system is still working out what to do with employees who fail to get an exemption and refuse to be vaccinated.
Roughly two-thirds of its employees have received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to LGH.
In addition to influenza, the hospital requires pre-employment that staff provide proof of vaccination for Rubella, Mumps, Varicella and Hepatitis B, according to officials.
The move came as more than 284 million doses have been administered in the United States — according to federal data — with very few side effects.
Generally, health systems have not required staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, all of which in the U.S. have undergone clinical trials in a truncated process sped up for emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration.
Parsons and D’Agostino said they had fielded complaints from LGH employees.
Both commissioners said they spoke with Herman and Ripchinski on Monday.
Herman informed staff of the new requirement on May 19, as reported by LNP | LancasterOnline.
Speaking off the cuff, Democratic Commissioner Craig Lehman said he saw the new policy as consistent with other hospital requirements.
Ripchinski attended Wednesday’s meeting to receive county support for pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinics the health system is conducting throughout the summer to vaccinate difficult-to-reach communities.
Approval, which Ripchinski received, will help LGH receive funds from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency for these efforts.
To date, roughly 2,500 doses have been administered at 11 pop-up clinics across the county, Ripchinski said.