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EXCLUSIVE: TV interview with Sanford Health CEO over controversial comments

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A letter the leader of Sanford Health sent to the system’s employees has caused a firestorm across the state and even nationally. CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft shared that he had recovered from COVID-19, but his comments about masking received the most attention.

Sanford Health issued a statement today saying Krabbenhoft’s email was “based on his own experience and his personal opinions. They do not reflect the views of the health system.”

Kelby 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. 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. It is important to follow CDC guidelines. We continue to be incredibly grateful to our frontline workers who are stepping up every day to take care of our patients.

MICAH ABERSON, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, SANFORD HEALTH

KELOLAND’s Angela Kennecke sat down with Krabbenhoft Friday afternoon. Right after the interview, he was scheduled to speak with The New York Times.

Krabbenhoft says his email has been misinterpreted. Angela asked him pointed questions about why Sanford Health has not come out in favor of a mask mandate and whether he was worried about his already taxed health care workers taking offense to his email.

Krabbenhoft says he contracted the virus around Halloween after watching a football game on TV outside on his deck with a friend who ended up testing positive.

“It’s kind of the classic story– at first it was so minor, you kind of made fun of it; like a cold. And then I got to day 6 or 7 and I had a spike in temperature; go up just at 100, wasn’t dangerous or anything. I started coughing; lost my sense of smell and taste and went through the classic symptoms,” Krabbenhoft said.

Krabbenhoft quarantined and then returned to work a couple of weeks ago.

This week he wrote a letter to staff, telling them about his experience. It was his comments on masks in the email that started a firestorm.

He said, “Masks have been a symbolic issue that frankly frustrates me.” He went on to write: “The “on-again, off-again” behavior of mask use by the general population violates every notion of serious infectious management that I was trained to adhere to, so some of this is absurd.”

“People as I observe out in the public and elsewhere who put their mask on, take their mask off– the notion you can sit at at a table and not wear a mask, but while you’re in line you have to wear a mask– that’s not consistent with a health care worker who’s been trained in infection control to do that. That was the only point,” he said.

Krabbenhoft also wrote in the email: “The information, science, truth, advice and growing evidence is that I am immune for at least seven months and perhaps for years to come.”

Krabbenhoft did provide us with The New York Times report on new studies that indicate that may be the case.

He also wrote in his email:

“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. I have no interest in using masks as a symbolic gesture”

Krabbenhoft: I’m not a researcher, Angela. I’m not a doctor. All I did in letter, was again in a hopeful way, in a positive way, as a recovering virus patient, suggest that there is a growing body of evidence and discussion about the longevity of immunity that is garnered form this. That’s all I said..
Kennecke: Do you..
Krabbenhoft: That’s all I said.
Kennecke: Do you believe it’s safe for you to go without a mask for a long time, a long period of time?
Krabbenhoft: In accordance with guidelines and protocols the CDC is putting out there, I should wear a mask. I don’t have to–like anybody else in accordance with those protocols.
Kennecke: Will you?
Krabbenhoft: Of course. Of course.

Krabbenhoft says Sanford Health is not at a breaking point and he doesn’t call the pandemic a health crisis.

Krabbenhoft: It’s hard for me to say we are at a crisis. That would be misleading, from a clinical standpoint. From a staffing standpoint, my team working hours and hours on where to discharge people and where to get staff–we’re at a stress point.

Kennecke: I understand that staff is receiving daily emails requesting additional nursing shifts be picked up; that internal medicine specialists are admitting patients because hosptalists are overwhelmed.
Krabbenhoft: Yeah.
Kennecke: Is that a crisis?
Krabbenfot: That … I can’t get to the word crisis because I’ve seen crisis. I’ve seen bus accidents that overwhelm an emergency room. I’ve seen trauma. We have a surge of volume that was anticipated; that we’re prepared for; that we have equipment, staff and facilities for. The word crisis to me is one we should be very cautious using.

Sanford Health did not endorse the mask mandate for the City of Sioux Falls, while Avera Health did. Krabbenhoft says while health systems provide local and state leaders with information, it’s not up to them to dictate policy.

Kennecke: So wouldn’t it be the place then, for Sanford Health to say they support a mask mandate to help protect your healthcare workers, to make sure you have enough staff.
Krabbenhoft: I’m really not trying to parse words or be cute here– I think the mask mandate issue has become such a fire point, that I’m trying to focus on other things. I’m trying to focus on where can we discharge patients? Can we open up wings in nursing homes that are currently closed? Can we do other things of priority? There’s plenty of discussion about masks. I wrote a 200 word letter to my employees and the only sentences that are getting focus are about mask.. [laughs.] I’m trying to do my job and focus on the things that really matter. Masks matter. I’ve got one. A lot of other things matter too.

Krabbenhoft told us that out of the 1,500 people hospitalized in the Sanford system, 390 are being treated for the virus. He talked about the need to serve all patients and his optimism about getting a vaccine next month for health care workers.

Krabbenhoft’s Email to Sanford Health employees

Sanford Health’s letter to employees:

To watch the full interview with Krabbenhoft, CLICK HERE.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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