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Midwest health CEO says he had COVID, won't wear a mask

Says it would just be for show.

Posted: Nov 21, 2020 9:36 AM

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The head of one of the largest regional health systems in the Midwest has told his employees that he has recovered from COVID-19 and is back in the office — without a mask.

Sanford Health's president and chief executive, Kelby Krabbenhoft, said in an email Wednesday that he believes he’s now immune to the disease for “at least seven months and perhaps years to come” and that he isn’t a threat to transmit it to anyone, so wearing a mask would be merely for show.

The email from Krabbenhoft, who is not a physician, comes as hospitals throughout the region, including in his own network, are struggling to keep up with some of the country’s worst surges of coronavirus patients. And it comes at a time when mask wearing remains a politicized issue in many states.

Sanford Health, based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has 46 hospitals and more than 200 clinics concentrated in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. It employs about 50,000 people. The Dakotas have had the country’s worst spread rates for several weeks, with Iowa close behind, while Minnesota is catching up.

“For me to wear a mask defies the efficacy and purpose of a mask and sends an untruthful message that I am susceptible to infection or could transmit it,” Krabbenhoft wrote in the email, obtained by The Associated Press. “I have no interest in using masks as a symbolic gesture. ... My team and I have a duty to express the truth and facts and reality and not feed the opposite.”

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has refused to impose a statewide mask mandate. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum did so last week after months of pressure. Other Republican governors, including Iowa's Kim Reynolds, have started to shift on mask mandates as their hospitals fill. Minnesota's Democratic governor, Tim Walz, ordered one back in July.

Krabbenhoft did not immediately respond to a Friday interview request. But five top Sanford Health executives sent a follow-up email to employees Friday trying to walk back his statement.

“We know that words matter, and words have power, and we regret that the message left many frustrated and disappointed," said the letter from Chief Operating Officer Matt Hocks and others. They went on to say: “Whether you’ve had the virus or not, it is recommended that you wear a mask when you cannot be socially distanced. Our masking policy for Sanford Health remains unchanged.”

In a separate statement, Executive Vice President Micah Aberson said Krabbenhoft's email was based on his own experience with COVID-19 and his personal opinions about the virus.

“They do not reflect the views of our health system as a whole," Aberson said. “Sanford Health’s position is the same as it has always been — consistently wearing masks, avoiding crowds and staying home if you’re sick are critical to preventing the spread of the virus."

Sanford Health requires clinic employees and hospital and clinic visitors to wear masks, according to its website. The executives’ statements did not address whether Krabbenhoft would have to comply with the company’s mask requirements.

The CEO did not explain in his email why he thinks he's immune for at least seven months. Scientists don’t know yet whether having had the coronavirus once protects against future illness, or how long any protection might last. How long an infected person can spread the virus also is unclear, but scientists think that people usually clear it within roughly 10 days of the start of symptoms unless they have a weak immune system or certain other conditions.

Krabbenhoft did acknowledge that masks are a good idea for people who have not contracted the virus and are therefore at risk of acquiring and then spreading it.

“It is important for them to know that masks are just plain smart to use and in their best interest,” he wrote.

But Dr. Kathy Anderson, president of the North Dakota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said Krabbenhoft’s message was “definitely not helpful” and “an especially dangerous message to be sending right now in North Dakota.”

It's hard for ordinary people to know what to believe given all the conflicting messages they're getting, Anderson said. And she said it's important for people to know he is not a physician.

“Leaders across the state and across the nation need to understand the power of leadership,” Anderson said. “The power of leadership is not only in telling others what they need to do. The power of leadership is in modeling behavior that is necessary for others to follow.”

Tessa Johnson, president of the North Dakota Nurses Association, called Krabbenhoft’s message “disheartening.”

“I think one of the things is that we have really tried hard to get the public’s support for wearing a mask and social distancing,” she said. “And when a public figure says the opposite, it just confuses people.”

Krabbenhoft told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader for a story published Friday that he doesn't think South Dakota needs a mask mandate. He said his hospital system is well-positioned to handle any increase in COVID-19 patients before vaccines become widely available.

“At this point, we feel we’ve got this under control,” Krabbenhoft said. “There’s not a crisis.”

But another major regional health system, Sioux Falls-based Avera, told a South Dakota lawmaker on Friday that it now supports mask mandates after stopping short of backing them before. In a letter to Democratic Rep. Linda Duba, an Avera executive said the organization was “compelled to change our stance” given the increase of patients with COVID-19, the fatigue of its frontline caregivers, and its support for a healthy workforce and keeping businesses and schools open.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people to wear masks because they help prevent people who are infected — whether they know it or not — from spreading the coronavirus. It also says masks can also protect wearers who are not infected, though to a lesser degree.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 333626

Reported Deaths: 3843
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin700691145
Ramsey29459521
Dakota23564198
Anoka23541236
Washington14864125
Stearns14564125
St. Louis9549121
Scott896460
Wright847548
Olmsted714637
Sherburne618746
Clay529960
Carver509715
Kandiyohi440828
Rice432338
Blue Earth431217
Crow Wing383339
Otter Tail338925
Chisago334516
Benton322753
Nobles316032
Winona297832
Douglas283040
Mower274823
Polk271527
Morrison246731
McLeod233721
Lyon232812
Beltrami230718
Goodhue222932
Becker221521
Steele21038
Itasca206324
Isanti203917
Carlton201417
Todd190314
Nicollet172126
Mille Lacs164632
Freeborn16227
Le Sueur157012
Brown156115
Cass153511
Pine14498
Meeker144812
Waseca143411
Roseau13035
Martin124721
Hubbard119729
Wabasha11301
Redwood104620
Chippewa9808
Renville95530
Cottonwood9454
Dodge9311
Watonwan8944
Wadena8637
Sibley8404
Rock8249
Houston8004
Aitkin79930
Fillmore7690
Pipestone76518
Pennington7058
Yellow Medicine69612
Kanabec68614
Swift63610
Murray6124
Faribault6093
Pope5721
Clearwater55410
Marshall5459
Stevens5403
Jackson5321
Lake4518
Koochiching4216
Wilkin4175
Lac qui Parle4124
Lincoln3811
Unassigned38159
Norman3718
Big Stone3392
Mahnomen3225
Grant2986
Kittson2518
Red Lake2303
Traverse1531
Lake of the Woods1071
Cook800

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 237371

Reported Deaths: 2571
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk34873347
Linn14787169
Scott1184692
Black Hawk11288147
Woodbury10763137
Johnson985939
Dubuque947999
Story701924
Pottawattamie682474
Dallas661260
Sioux383829
Webster378339
Cerro Gordo373252
Marshall360950
Clinton345645
Buena Vista316614
Muscatine305172
Des Moines300623
Warren294115
Plymouth287044
Wapello265072
Jones237118
Jasper231546
Lee228719
Marion211922
Carroll204325
Bremer202713
Henry19367
Crawford183116
Benton175423
Tama157442
Jackson151117
Washington150216
Delaware147621
Dickinson145812
Boone144912
Mahaska133928
Wright13107
Clay12505
Buchanan123410
Hardin122812
Hamilton119514
Page11925
Kossuth11768
Clayton115510
Cedar114614
Harrison113432
Floyd111921
Mills11129
Calhoun10987
Fayette109812
Lyon10769
Butler10748
Winneshiek105513
Poweshiek103714
Iowa101414
Cherokee9674
Winnebago96325
Chickasaw9195
Hancock9138
Sac9068
Louisa90122
Grundy89514
Allamakee88413
Cass84725
Union8437
Mitchell8429
Appanoose81613
Humboldt8125
Shelby80511
Emmet79026
Guthrie78315
Franklin76421
Jefferson7635
Madison7265
Unassigned7090
Palo Alto6744
Keokuk6567
Pocahontas6024
Howard5859
Ida54915
Osceola5461
Greene5422
Montgomery51411
Clarke5064
Davis4839
Taylor4833
Monona4567
Adair4539
Monroe45113
Worth3881
Fremont3823
Van Buren3815
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