SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — Avera Health announced Tuesday afternoon that it will be requiring full vaccination for all physicians, employees and volunteers by December 1, 2021. The mandate will also apply to students at Avera facilities, contractors and vendors.

“For decades, vaccination has been an important tool in public health. Avera has long been requiring vaccinations among its employees for influenza and other infectious diseases like measles,” David Erickson, Chief Medical and Innovation Officer at Avera Health, said in a release.

Exemptions will be considered for those with medical or religious reasons. Employees receiving an exemption will be required to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as comply with regular COVID-19 testing and other preventative measures.

In a virtual news conference following the announcement, Erickson, along with Chief Human Resources Officer Kim Jensen, reviewed the information from the initial release before fielding questions from media.

During the conference, Jensen noted that the decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccination followed a period of input from Avera employees. “The majority of our employees responded in favor about being vaccinated and requiring the vaccine,” she said.

According to Jensen, for employees who refuse vaccination and do not qualify for exemption, the initial focus will be on “coaching and education.” This education will consist of providing the latest information on the vaccines to employees and leadership.

Jensen said Avera does not expect to have an issue with non-exemption eligible staff not getting vaccinated, stating that having to resort to suspension or termination is not currently anticipated. Asked for further clarification via email, an Avera representative noted that were a non-exempt employee to remain unvaccinated, Avera would follow its “progressive performance process.”

Jensen said the December 1 deadline provides plenty of time for staff to get vaccinated.

The newly announced mandate will affect Avera’s approximately 16,000 employees. Adding in staff from Avera’s managed sites, Jensen says this number reaches around 19,000 employees.

Jensen said that the majority of Avera employees are already vaccinated. System-wide, she said, Avera is at above 70% participation. Erickson also chimed in on this topic, noting that among Avera providers, meaning specifically physicians and advanced practice providers, vaccination is at 82%.

Erickson said that masks and screening will still be required.

Sanford Health, South Dakota’s other major health care system, announced its own employee vaccine requirement on July 22, 2021, with a deadline for vaccination of November 1.

Sanford’s Chief Physician, Jeremy Cauwels said the mandate has been largely popular among employees, and that as of September 3, their lowest estimate was that more than 70% of employees had been vaccinated.

Monument Health has not required vaccinations for employees, saying in a statement that they are evaluating the COVID-19 situation in western South Dakota.