From CEO Wade Johnson: Working together to care for our community

December 15, 2021

One year ago, the first St. Peter’s Health caregivers received the COVID-19 vaccine. The week that followed, with more than 1,000 vaccines administered to our staff on the front lines of the pandemic, was met with tears of joy by many. Since then, we have advocated for and administered thousands of vaccines to our employees, patients and community members.

Now a year later, the vaccination of health care workers is once again in the spotlight as vaccine mandates capture headlines and fill court dockets. We have spent considerable time discussing the issues around vaccine mandates, and we want to share our core beliefs along with some important information about vaccinations with you.

We firmly believe the safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines are lifesaving and the best tool to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our community against the virus. 
First and foremost, St. Peter's Health will continue to strongly advocate for our staff and community members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Our caregivers have seen firsthand its life-saving benefits. We are a proud member of the collaborative local COVID-19 vaccine planning group. We offer free COVID-19 vaccinations at our Broadway Clinic five days a week to all who are eligible. And, we are trusted to store the COVID-19 vaccine in our pharmacy, helping monitor supply and distributing it to points of care across our service area.

People who are unvaccinated will continue to work in health care in Montana and across the country, regardless of the ultimate ruling on a vaccine mandate. It takes everyone working together to care for our community. We will continue to do this successfully by remaining focused on our shared values and maintaining strict safety protocols.
Around 20% – 30% of health care workers across the country, in Montana and at St. Peter's Health are not vaccinated, and not just against COVID-19. There have always been health care workers in hospitals and clinics who aren’t vaccinated against other common infectious diseases, and there is no indication this will change in the future.  We have safely navigated this for decades, including over the last two years with COVID-19. Furthermore, in the state of Montana it is illegal to discriminate against anyone based on their vaccination status. State law prohibits health care employers from making hiring decisions based on a person’s vaccination status. So, vaccinated and unvaccinated people will continue to work together to safely care for patients, taking preventative measures that are proven to prevent the spread of illness like masking and using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). These stringent safety protocols have so far allowed us to successfully mitigate transmission of infectious diseases and they remain essential for the foreseeable future.  

We are confident Dr. Liz Bigger, the board-certified medical oncologist and hematologist joining St. Peter’s Health in February 2022, is a wonderful addition to our community. She believes the COVID-19 vaccine is scientifically sound and effective, and she recommends and administers the vaccine to her patients and her family members.
Unfortunately, recently published news stories and social media posts were misleading and did not accurately portray Dr. Bigger’s position on the COVID-19 vaccine. This has resulted in questions and concerns from patients and community members. St. Peter’s Health does not disclose the private health information of patients or employees, so addressing these issues publicly puts us in a difficult position. Dr. Bigger has given us permission to share this personal background in the hopes we can correct some of the misinformation that has been circulating.

Dr. Bigger briefly participated in a lawsuit against her former employer after learning she would not be granted an exception for her religious beliefs. The lawsuit had not been initiated prior to her interviews in Montana and she subsequently withdrew from the lawsuit within a few days of its filing. We have discussed this situation at length with Dr. Bigger. We understand the vulnerable place she was in due to the conflict between her personal beliefs and her method of practicing scientifically-based medicine. To be clear: Dr. Bigger fully endorses the COVID-19 vaccine, and believes it is safe, effective and represents the very best medical science has to offer today in protection against the COVID-19 virus. She advocates for and administers the COVID-19 vaccine to her patients, as well as to many of her family members. She also utilizes proven COVID-19 prevention measures like masking as a way to prevent transmission. 
We are confident Dr. Bigger is a fantastic fit for St. Peter's Health, both in her approach to providing medicine and the culture we are building. She was recruited by multiple health systems here in Montana and across the country, but ultimately selected Helena and St. Peter’s Health as the place for her family and medical practice. Her expertise, combined with our exceptional cancer care team, will bring a higher level of cancer care to Helena and continue to build on our affiliation with Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). We hope that you’ll join us in welcoming Dr. Bigger to our community. 

At St. Peter’s Health, we will live our values as we address evolving complex issues.
Helena and St. Peter’s Health are not alone in facing complex challenges around vaccines mandates, public health and safety, and individual rights. Difficult conversations are taking place in health care systems around the world, and we’re watching organizational positions evolve on an almost daily basis as health systems wrestle major workforce challenges. At St. Peter’s Health, we are committed to making decisions that are rooted in our values. We are a People First organization, so we embrace diversity in all its forms and treat team members as whole people with unique backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. We firmly believe this empowers our people to be their very best, and in turn makes us a better and stronger organization. We believe that everyone who can be vaccinated against COVID-19 and other infectious diseases should be, yet we also vow to treat patients and coworkers with dignity, respect, and loving kindness, regardless of their vaccination status. We know it can be frustrating to feel one way about an issue and work side-by-side with someone who feels differently, but we have proven for many years that we can work together successfully and respectfully, creating a safe and welcoming patient environment.   

We know these are unique times and everyone is feeling challenged by the world we live in. We appreciate all that our caregivers do each day, and especially all they have done over the past two years as we’ve responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.