SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Sanford Health's new CEO is here to tell you: The COVID-19 situation is a health care crisis, all his employees should wear masks and the South Dakota governor should issue a statewide mask mandate.
These may not seem like controversial positions to some. But they're all a reversal of stances recently taken by Kelby Krabbenhoft, the long-time president and CEO of Sioux Falls-based Sanford Health, one of the nation's largest nonprofit health systems.
Krabbenhoft abruptly exited his job Tuesday, Nov. 24 -- nearly a week after Forum News Service first reported he sent employees an email about COVID-19 and masks, an email that turned into a public relations disaster for the health system. Krabbenhoft described his departure as a retirement. Sanford Health said its board and the CEO "mutually agree to part ways."
Bill Gassen,the former chief administrative officer selected as Sanford Health's new president and CEO, spoke with Forum News Service on Wednesday and laid out a new approach for the health system, including an about-face on a number of COVID-19 issues.
"Right now, this system is very stressed and I would say we are in a crisis right now," Gassen said. "It doesn't mean it's a crisis we're unable to handle."
Sanford Health is a major health care provider in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota, all states struggling with a surge in COVID-19 cases. Gassen said he's working to hear directly from the system's physicians and nurses about what their needs are right now.
"The best way I think we can be successful moving forward is by continuing to listen to them, continuing to allow them to guide us and direct us as to the best way to care for our patients, both now in this pandemic as well as into the future, regardless of what the health challenges are that we'll face," he said.
Gassen said his goal is to ease the burden on hospitals and health workers, by taking steps to reduce the number of people that need to be admitted for serious cases of COVID-19, while still providing care for both serious virus cases and those dealing with other health issues.
A key component of what is needed to slow the spread of COVID-19: masks.
'Masks will be required'
Krabbenhoft, who is not a physician, had declined to support mask mandates at either city or state levels and had bemoaned how political the wearing of masks had become.
But over the weekend, Dr. Allison Suttle, Sanford's Chief Medical Officer, called on Gov. Kristi Noem to implement a statewide mask mandate, in an interview with CBS News. Noem has refused to implement a mask mandate or implement any COVID-19 restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.
Gassen, who is also not a physician, aligned himself with Suttle's statements.
"Consistent with Dr. Suttle's comments, we absolutely stand behind the CDC's guidelines. We want to reinforce those, both our policies and practices within each of our care centers, but as well across our communities," Gassen said. "We stand united and really want to continue to support the strong adherence of that. That comes with the backing of our physicians and clinicians across the enterprise."
Under Krabbenhoft, Sanford Health's non-clinical employees weren't required to wear masks. Krabbenhoft, in his email last week to employees, cast doubt on the efficacy of the use of masks in many circumstances and said he refused to wear a mask, calling doing so a "symbolic gesture" because he had recovered from COVID-19 and believed himself immune -- despite a lack of scientific evidence for his claims.
Gassen said all employees will now be required to wear masks.
"Masks will be required across the Sanford footprint in any of our facilities going forward unless otherwise notified," he said.
The CEO transition comes at a pivotal time. Sanford Health and Intermountain announced plans late last month to merge, hopefully by mid-2021, creating an organization with 89,000 employees, 70 hospitals and 435 clinics.
Gassen said he's been in regular contact with Intermountain Healthcare in recent days, including with Dr. Marc Harrison, Intermountain's president and CEO, and is committed to moving forward with the merger. He said there has been no discussion of what his future role might be in the combined organization.
Intermountain Healthcare late Tuesday issued a carefully worded statement saying Krabbenhoft's departure didn't involve Intermountain and didn't change their intent to merge with Sanford Health. But the health system also provided full-throated support for Sanford Health's new approach:
"Intermountain fully supports Sanford Health management and board in their focus on an evidence-based approach to the pandemic," it announced in its statement.