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OKLAHOMA CITY — A group of lawmakers wants Oklahoma’s governor to prohibit health care providers from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for employees, even as cases of the deadly virus surge.

In a letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt, the 20 Republican House representatives said they want the GOP governor to issue an executive order banning employee vaccination mandates or to call the Legislature into special session so it can again attempt to pass legislation barring the practice. Lawmakers introduced bills last session attempting to ban similar vaccine mandates, but none garnered enough support to become law.

In the letter, state Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, said many health care providers across the state have decided to require vaccinations.

“Many Oklahomans are about to have their paychecks used against them to make a medical decision that goes against their beliefs,” Roberts wrote. “Health care workers are left to choose between taking a vaccine authorized for emergency use or risk losing their job. This goes against ‘liberty and justice for all.’ If we do not protect the individual’s right to choose what goes in their body, we no longer live in a free society.”

Roberts, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, said the quickest and most effective way to protect the workers is through an executive order. Stitt’s office also did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Hospital officials, meanwhile, defended the practice of requiring vaccinations, noting that the most effective way to protect employees and patients from deadly diseases — including COVID-19 — is vaccination.

Allowing health care providers to require certain vaccinations has long been a part of “basic public health,” said Patti Davis, president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association. She said employees understand that when they are hired. Hospitals require vaccinations for diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella, chickenpox and tuberculosis screenings. Other Oklahoma hospitals require annual flu shots as a condition of employment.

“We support our hospitals making the decision that’s right for their hospitals,” Davis said. “Do we have a blanket position? At this time we do not, but we think it’s a personal responsibility by our health care providers to get vaccinated, and we support our members who choose to have that as a policy.”

Employee vaccination rates vary widely among hospitals, health officials said.

“As health care providers, we have a responsibility to protect our patients,” said LaWanna Halstead, vice president for quality and clinical initiatives for OHA. “I would think it would be a really important issue to the public also that when they go in to receive care that they’re safe in there.”

She said patients should not have to worry that a nurse, for instance, has early-onset COVID symptoms.

Halstead said getting vaccinated is not truly mandated; every employee has a choice, even if it means opting to no longer work for a provider.

The state Nurses Association said more than 75% of licensed nurses working in Oklahoma’s hospitals and nursing homes have taken the vaccine. Most nurses want to protect themselves, their families and their patients from the virus, said Jane Nelson, chief executive officer.

Nelson said that the American Nurses Association supports mandatory vaccination policies for nurses and other health care workers. That policy was recently expanded to include the COVID-19 vaccine. The Oklahoma association supports the new policy, and recommends that all nurses be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We stand by those employers that are requiring nurses and health care workers to be vaccinated,” Nelson said.

While it’s been a difficult decision, requiring that every employee be vaccinated for COVID-19 by the end of September will not only protect patients and co-workers but will also help decrease the spread of the virus and reduce the risk of hospitalization and death, said Dr. Jesse Campbell, community president for Mercy Clinics Oklahoma.

Campbell said he hopes that the policy will also demonstrate to local communities that health care workers believe the vaccine works. He also said employees can request a medical or religious exemption.

Mercy has locations in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas and employs about 40,000 people, including about 5,000 in Oklahoma.

Campbell said about 75% of Mercy employees had been vaccinated as of Tuesday, and the hospital system is working to address questions and allay fears for non-vaccinated staff.

A spokeswoman with OU Health, which has also mandated employee COVID-19 vaccinations, declined to comment on vaccine matters.

SSM Health spokeswoman Kate Cunningham said the health system instituted a vaccine requirement based on the proven effectiveness and widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines, the proliferation of the Delta variant and the expected onset of the fall flu season.

“The vaccine paves the way for the best path back to ‘normal,’ and it is one of the many infection prevention strategies that enable us to make our employees, patients, children and the larger community more safe,” she said. “We believe requiring these live-saving vaccines is the right thing to do for our health system.”

Integris Health, meanwhile, said it is not currently making the vaccine a requirement of work, but hasn’t ruled out doing so in the near or distant future.

“We have been having thoughtful and active discussions about this topic for many weeks,” said Brooke Cayot, a hospital spokeswoman. “At some point, when the vaccines receive full FDA approval, Integris Health will most likely take a similar approach to COVID as we do the seasonal flu.”

Cayot said the health system for many years has required caregivers and providers to receive the flu vaccine, unless they have a documented medical or religious exemption.

“For now, we strongly encourage our providers and caregivers to receive the COVID vaccine,” she said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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