DULUTH – Essentia Health, Duluth's largest employer, will require all employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by November.

Hours after Essentia's announcement, St. Luke's, Duluth's second-largest employer, announced it would also require vaccines for all employees.

With few exceptions for medical and religious reasons, the Essentia mandate applies to all 13,000 of the Duluth-based health system's employees in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

"This is going to be reassuring to our patients that we are doing everything possible to keep them safe," Dr. Jon Pryor, president of Essentia's eastern division, said during a virtual news conference Wednesday. "After studying this, looking at the legal implications, thinking about all the pros and the cons, listening to thought leaders on the topic, talking to ethicists and so on, we felt this is the best course of action."

To date, Pryor said 87% of physicians, 84% of advanced practice providers and 70% of other employees have been vaccinated.

And at St. Luke's, 78% of employees and 97% of St. Luke's physicians have received their COVID-19 vaccine.

"We understand people have strong beliefs about this," said Dr. Nick Van Deelen, St. Luke's co-president. "Ultimately, the policy is about keeping our patients and staff safe and reducing the community transmission of a serious disease."

The Duluth-based health systems join a number of large Minnesota health providers, including Mayo Clinic, Allina Health and Children's Minnesota, in mandating vaccines for employees.

Essentia employees, including contractors and staffers permanently working from home, will need to receive a first dose by Oct. 1 and a second dose by Nov. 1. St. Luke's employees have until Oct. 1 to complete a vaccine series.

The United Steelworkers Local 9460, which represents a variety of employees at Essentia, said it "is sending in a demand to bargain with Essentia over this."

Pryor said he expects to lose some employees, based on the experiences other hospitals have had with vaccine mandates.

Pryor said the ongoing shortage of health care workers is causing many health systems to hesitate on a vaccine requirement.

Federal guidance on workplace vaccine mandates allows the COVID-19 vaccines, which are approved for emergency use, to be required as a condition for employment.

"We have discussed this with our legal staff and feel we're in a good position to support this," Pryor said.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496