Parsons interview

Josh Parsons, chairman of the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners, responds to a question from LNP | LancasterOnline reporters during a livestreamed interview inside the LNP Media Group office at 101 N. Queen St. in Lancaster city on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

THE ISSUE

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila reported last week, “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.” LG Health CEO John Herman notified employees of the COVID-19 vaccination requirement on May 19.

Let’s get this straight.

The Republican county commissioners who say they are opposed to big government, and therefore aren’t convinced that Lancaster County needs a public health department, last week essentially told a top official of this county’s largest hospital how to do his job.

According to Brambila’s reporting, Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino “directed their displeasure” with Lancaster General Health’s COVID-19 vaccination policy at Dr. Michael Ripchinski, the health system’s chief clinical officer.

This is the same health system, remember, that has been heroically battling the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year. As Ripchinski wrote in a column in last Sunday’s Perspective section, Lancaster General Hospital admitted its 3,000th COVID-19 patient earlier this month.

When a person with COVID-19 is sick enough to be hospitalized, it’s likely he or she will require physically exhausting and emotionally draining care from the hospital’s doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and other staff members. Now multiply that effort by more than 3,000.

Consider, too, that of those more than 3,000 COVID-19 patients, hospital officials say that 356 — ranging in ages from 30 to 100 — have died at LGH, despite the valiant efforts of the hospital’s staff members to save them.

And consider the distinct possibility that Parsons and D’Agostino — safely ensconced in their offices at the Lancaster County Government Center — may not be the best people to challenge a hospital’s policy on staff vaccination.

Or to be involved in any way in health policy and administration.

This is yet another reason that this county needs a public health department staffed by actual public health experts. Politicians who are guided by ideology rather than science simply should not be making public health decisions. The smartest ones know this and delegate such decision-making to physicians and other people trained in medicine and health.

The values debate

Parsons took to his Facebook page Thursday to complain about Brambila’s reporting, because not only is he an ideologue, but he’s a thin-skinned ideologue.

He asserted that it was indeed the purview of the commissioners to “address constituent complaints.” He claimed he has had “outreach from a number of LGH employees about the decision to require all employees to get this vaccine.”

And he wrote this: “Regardless of what each of us think about their choices, to force them to do so, or to fire them for not doing so, would be wrong and not in accordance with Lancaster County values.”

To what Lancaster County values was he referring?

The value we place on getting skilled medical care from professionals we can trust not to infect us with a lethal virus?

The value we place on personal responsibility and pragmatism, which means accepting that an employer may require us to take a drug test before bringing us onboard or, if we work in health care, to get vaccinated so we don’t sicken others or get sickened by ailing patients?

And who are these unnamed LGH employees? Are they the same unnamed “doctors” who, according to a Facebook post from the Lancaster County chapter of FreePA, are “in this fight” against LGH’s vaccination requirement, too?

We’d like to know who these doctors are, so we don’t end up in their offices when we need medical care.

FreePA is a group of so-called “patriots” who have opposed the so-called “tyranny” of mask-wearing and other COVID-19 mitigation measures. On the Lancaster chapter’s webpage, there’s a photo of Parsons flashing the thumbs-up sign as he’s flanked by women wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the red, white and blue FreePA logo. The image doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in Parsons’ ability to make clear-eyed decisions in the interests of public health. It mostly conveys Parsons’ eagerness to win the favor of extremist conservatives who reject health guidelines.

In our experience, “Lancaster County values” tend more toward common sense, moderation, responsibility and caring. Getting vaccinated to protect oneself and others seems to us to be in line with those values.

Safety is the priority

In his first interview with LNP | LancasterOnline last Monday, LG Health CEO Herman told Brambila that the health system is still working out what to do with employees who fail to get an exemption and refuse to be vaccinated.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, federal laws “do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19.”

That federal agency says that employees who do not get vaccinated because of a disability or a “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance” may “be entitled to a reasonable accommodation that does not pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.”

Roughly two-thirds of its employees have received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to LG Health. Those who want to work at LGH also must provide proof of immunization status for measles, mumps, rubella, varicella (chickenpox) and hepatitis B, as well as agree to getting an annual flu vaccine. They also must provide proof of hepatitis C antibody testing and undergo a chest X-ray if they’ve had tuberculosis and have no documentation of an X-ray within the past year.

None of this strikes us as onerous for people who want to work in a hospital, where infection control is essential.

While relatively few hospital systems now require COVID-19 vaccination for employees, that seems likely to change as it becomes ever clearer that the vaccines are remarkably effective and safe.

Nancy Foster, vice president of quality and patient safety policy at the American Hospital Association, told the website Becker’s Hospital Review that most association members have indicated that they will decide about requiring the shot for their employees when the vaccines receive full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Association. Such approval is only a matter of time and paperwork, Ripchinski noted in his column last Sunday. (The vaccines now have emergency use authorization, which, Ripchinski wrote, is the “normal first step” for new vaccines.)

At last week’s commissioners meeting, Ripchinski said, “The safety of our patients and employees is our top priority.”

As it should be.

Patients shouldn’t need to wonder if the clinical staff providing them with medical care have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Especially if those patients have compromised immune systems and potentially weaker protective responses to COVID-19 vaccination.

Reading from a prepared statement, Parsons, however, insisted at Wednesday’s meeting that LG Health’s vaccination requirement was “counterproductive” and “heavy-handed.” He may not be an epidemiologist or physician, but his written statement noted that he was at the White House when President Donald Trump discussed Operation Warp Speed, so there’s that.

As Brambila reported, “Ripchinski attended Wednesday’s meeting to receive county support” — that is, funding — “for pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinics the health system is conducting throughout the summer to vaccinate difficult-to-reach communities.”

This, too, raises a concern related to this county’s lack of a public health department.

Because no such department existed to create the Lancaster County Community COVID-19 Vaccination Center, Ripchinski and LG Health took the lead.

But the relationship between the commissioners and hospital officials meant the latter might have had to handle messaging on COVID-19 in ways that didn’t offend the political sensibilities of the former.

We hope LG Health remains unmoved by the Republican commissioners’ hissy fit over the hospital’s commonsense vaccination policy.

And we’ll say this yet another time: Lancaster County needs a public health department to handle public health policy and messaging. Parsons and D’Agostino reminded us why last week.

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