The Journal Gazette
Saturday, November 21, 2020 1:00 am

Sanford CEO back, maskless, on the job

Says he is now immune, no threat to give virus to others


MINNEAPOLIS – 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.”

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