The Veterans Affairs health system, to which the nation entrusts the care of its wounded warriors, is now requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for its entire staff.

This week, the Mayo Clinic, one of the world's top medical centers, commendably announced it is taking a similar step. It joins South Dakota-based Sanford Health among the growing number of influential institutions nationally that are putting vaccination requirements in place to protect patients, providers and communities.

It's time for the rest of Minnesota's hospitals and clinics to do the same. Those on the front lines of care not only face a higher risk of becoming infected themselves, but are obliged to take every measure possible to protect the patients they serve. That includes getting the COVID vaccine, which remains the best weapon available against the virus.

Health care workers were among the first to have access to the vaccines after the shots were authorized for use in late 2020. Much of this important workforce has taken that responsibility seriously. National estimates suggest that about 75% of health care workers are either partly or fully vaccinated.

But that still leaves 1 out of 4 unvaccinated. WebMD and Medscape Medical News, the organizations that analyzed federal data to come up with that estimate, rightly dubbed this a "huge number" of health care workers putting themselves and patients at risk. The Star Tribune Editorial Board would add that the situation is unacceptable.

The Minnesota Hospital Association, disappointingly, doesn't track what percentage of the state's health care workforce has been vaccinated. But some of Minnesota's best-known providers were willing to share this information with an editorial writer. Here are their responses:

  • Hennepin Healthcare: "More than 85%" of employees have been vaccinated.
  • M Health Fairview: 77% of staff are vaccinated, 17% declined, with 6% unknown. Some of the declines were people who were vaccinated elsewhere and didn't want to go through the work of providing proof.
  • HealthPartners: 72% of staff are vaccinated.
  • Allina Health: "More than 72%" of staff are fully vaccinated.
  • CentraCare: The overall vaccination rate for staff is "more than 60%.''

These health care systems merit praise for their transparency. But clearly there's a lot of room for improvement. Requiring the vaccines is the next logical step.

A Texas hospital system that was one of the first to mandate COVID vaccinations offers a valuable case study. Houston Methodist has about 26,000 employees. Officials announced the requirement in March, giving all employees until early June to comply. The result: "nearly 100% compliance,'' according to a recent report in Becker's Hospital Review.

A small percentage of employees did not comply, and about 178 could be suspended or terminated. When there's a shortage of skilled labor across the nation, the loss of even a few staff members could give other providers pause.

Mandates becoming widespread could help prevent this. Workers may be less likely to leave their positions if they can't easily find a job at a hospital that doesn't yet require the shots.

One large Minnesota hospital system is on the verge of announcing a COVID vaccination requirement, and others report that they are working to "operationalize" one. Good. We look forward to seeing that happen soon.

Policymakers also need to consider the plight of long-term care centers. Their residents are among those at highest risk of severe COVID. But only about 65% of Minnesota's nursing home staff has been fully vaccinated. A mandate would be helpful, but these employers face staff shortages even in the best of times, making these requirements a challenge to implement.

The governor, legislators and the long-term care industry need to come together and get to work. Innovation and incentives are needed. This is a chance for Minnesota to pioneer a critical COVID response.