MercyOne Centerville Medical Center

In this March 20, 2020 file photo, night falls on the MercyOne Centerville Medical Center.

CLIVE — The MercyOne health system will require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they qualify for an exemption.

A press release announcing the decision said employees can qualify for an exemption based on deeply held religious beliefs or medical reasons. Those employees must apply for, and receive, the exemption.

MercyOne is the latest to join a growing number of similar medical providers to implement such policies. More than 100 hospitals and health systems have made the move, the organization said Tuesday. That includes UnityPoint Health, which made a similar announcement last week. The faith-based organization is a connected health care system with more than 420 clinics, medical centers, hospitals and care locations in Iowa and around the country.

MercyOne Chief Medical Executive Dr. Hijinio Carreon said the decision was made in the interest of safety for those within MercyOne's hospitals.

“With more than 350 million doses administered in the United States, we know the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and the single most effective tool in slowing, and even stopping, the spread of virus and saving lives," Carreon said.

The organization's chief executive officer Bob Ritz said the decision falls within its pledge.

"As a faith-based health ministry, we have pledged to protect the most vulnerable," Ritz said. "Our patients and their families expect us to provide a safe environment for their care, and that includes being vaccinated."

MercyOne owns 16 hospitals and medical centers in Iowa, including the MercyOne Centerville Medical Center. The system also owns two clinics in Ottumwa: the MercyOne Ottumwa Family and Internal Medicine clinic and the MercyOne Iowa Heart Center Ottumwa clinic. The new policy will apply at each location the system owns.

Several county hospitals in Iowa are affiliated with MercyOne, including the ones in Davis, Monroe and Van Buren. The announced policy does not impact affiliated partners, as each of those entities is in charge of its own policy-making.

The health system encourages all who are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

A spokesperson for the Ottumwa Regional Health Center said it’s not yet requiring employees be vaccinated, but said they continue to monitor the situation and said data points to the vaccines being safe and effective.

“There is significant evidence that grows daily indicating that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective,” spokesperson Charity Howk told the Courier Tuesday. “Understanding that the situation changes daily, we are committed to carefully evaluating the research and the level of COVID-19 activity in our communities as we make this very important decision independent of approval from the Food and Drug Administration.”

A spokesperson for the Van Buren County Hospital told the Courier Tuesday there were no plans to require COVID-19 vaccinations for its employees at this time.

Other Courier-area hospitals have not made public their plans, and they did not immediately return a request for comment sent late Tuesday afternoon.

About half of America's total population is considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19, a number well short of the 70-90 percent experts say is needed to achieve herd immunity.

Once in high demand and short supply, the vaccines are now readily available and free for anyone over the age of 12.

Iowa is about middle-of-the-pack for vaccinations, with about 50% of its population vaccinated, according to CDC numbers. That trails larger states like Massachusetts — with four times the population — where 64.4% are vaccinated. Vermont boasts the highest rate in the nation, with 68%.

Individuals interested in receiving the vaccine can contact their health care providers, pharmacies or local public health offices. Or, they can also consult with state and federal resources. Iowa offers a COVID-19 hotline that can help schedule appointments at 211, providers can be found at vaccinate.iowa.gov/providers.

Texting your ZIP code to 438829 (or 822862 for Spanish) is a federal service that will reply with three locations with vaccines in stock. The Department of Health and Human Services also has established a website for vaccine information at wecandothis.hhs.gov.

Kyle Ocker is the editor of the Ottumwa Courier and the Oskaloosa Herald. He can be reached at kocker@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kyle_Ocker.

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Kyle Ocker is a Centerville native and award-winning multimedia journalist. Kyle is currently the president of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and vice president of the Iowa Print Sports Writers Association.

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