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In Depth: Why did health systems vaccinate remote workers, board members?

KU Health System
Posted at 11:47 AM, Feb 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-01 11:19:30-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There is a lot of demand for a limited supply of vaccine, a situation leading to questions about who is receiving doses and why.

Several viewers reached out to 41 Action News asking why shots went to healthcare volunteers, board members or employees who have no contact with patients.

The 41 Action News I-Team reached out to all of the major health systems in the Kansas City metro to learn how decisions were made about who received vaccines.

To be clear, all of the health systems in our area started vaccinating their frontline workers who come face to face with patients first.

“We started with the people who had the most contact, and then we worked our way down until we got to the people that we call non-clinical. These could be support staff, they could be call center staff, they could be dietary,” University of Kansas Health System’s Director of Media Relations, Jill Chadwick, said.

The University of Kansas Health System worked its way down the list, eventually vaccinating people working remotely.

“Not everybody that is home-bound or working from home is always at home. Sometimes they’re coming back and forth,” Chadwick said.

She brought up the example of IT staff.

“IT does everything from keeping our computers on to making sure the technical equipment in an operating room is functioning and working,” Chadwick said.

The University of Kansas Health System is the only one that agreed to explain its process on camera.

However, Saint Luke’s Health System, Children’s Mercy and Truman Medical Centers/University Health also confirmed they vaccinated remote workers.

A spokesperson for TMC pointed out staff members working from home will be returning to buildings between March 1 and April 1.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for HCA Midwest Health said the system was following federal and state prioritization.

HCA Midwest Health also said it followed guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention regarding healthcare workers, but follow-up questions about remote workers went unanswered.

The CDC's recommendations for healthcare workers cast a wide net including administrative, billing, security and facilities management personnel "not directly involved in patient care, but who could be exposed to infectious agents that can be transmitted in the healthcare setting."

The 41 Action News I-Team also confirmed some health systems offered doses to their boards of directors.

In all cases, those individuals were part of the very last round of vaccines within organizations.

At the University of Kansas Health System, all board members were invited to receive vaccines, but many had already received doses because they were physicians.

According to Chadwick, the others who were offered vaccines met the criteria for the current phase in Kansas.

The health system’s argument is that board members need to be healthy to make important operational decisions.

“Those are people that have to show up for work every day, just like the rest of us,” Chadwick said of board members.

Saint Luke’s and Children’s Mercy offered doses to their boards.

Truman Medical Centers only vaccinated board members who fit within open phases in Missouri. After this story first aired, a spokesperson for TMC reached out to clarify that board members were not given any priority access to the vaccine. Rather, they were able to sign up for vaccinations on the same list as any other Missourian or patient.

Dr. Arthur Caplan, founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU’s School of Medicine, disagrees with the practice of vaccinating board members if they can meet virtually.

“If you’re safe and remote, you don’t need to be vaccinated,” Dr. Caplan said.

When it comes to remote workers overall, he pointed out that a lot of decisions were left to health systems themselves.

“They define who’s an important worker, and part of the answer is a lot of people fit the bill of important workers,” Dr. Caplan said.

Missouri is a perfect example of decisions being left to organizations.

The state’s vaccine rollout plan does not distinguish between essential and nonessential personnel within healthcare systems.

“Any employee at organizations within the priority phases is eligible for vaccination at the time that phase or tier is activated,” reads a slide in a presentation about the plan.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, the first phase included “persons serving in healthcare or healthcare-associated jobs, who are unable to work from home and may be directly or indirectly exposed to patients or infectious materials as a result of their jobs.”

The plans in both Missouri and Kansas also prioritized unpaid healthcare workers.

TMC/UH vaccinated volunteers who are helping with the vaccination effort, like students from UMKC Schools of Nursing and Medicine and retired healthcare workers.

Children’s Mercy also decided to vaccinate patient-facing volunteers, describing them as an “essential part” of their operation.

However, Chadwick said the University of Kansas Health System took a different stance.

“Volunteers didn’t have to be here,” Chadwick said. “We run a lot on volunteer power, so to have to limit that and restricting that is just as challenging as having to restrict family members who did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of caring for their loved when they’re in the hospital.

At the end of the day, Chadwick emphasized the health system is playing by the rules laid out by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and CDC, and staff are looking forward to the day when doses become more widely available.

“There are a lot of people here in the health system that would have gladly given their shot to someone else. But it is our culture and our belief that we’ve gotta take care of the people that are taking care of other people,”Chadwick said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated with clarification from Truman Medical Centers/University Health about how board members were able to access the vaccine.