Sanford Health CEO: I've had COVID-19, won't wear a mask as 'symbolic gesture'

Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford Health President and CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft shared his thoughts about having COVID-19 and why he won't be wearing a mask in an email to health system staff, according to the Grand Forks Herald

In the 1,000-word email sent Nov. 18, Mr. Krabbenhoft said he had COVID-19, but he's now back in his office working without a mask. He said he won't be wearing a mask because doing so would only be a "symbolic gesture." He considers himself immune from the virus.

"The information, science, truth, advice and growing evidence is that I am immune for at least seven months and perhaps for years to come, similar to that of chicken pox, measles, etc. 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," Mr. Krabbenhoft wrote. "I have no interest in using masks as a symbolic gesture when I consider that my actions in support of our family leave zero doubt to my support of all 50,000 of you. My team and I have a duty to express the truth and facts and reality and not feed the opposite." 

The CDC says those who have had COVID-19 should take steps to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, including wearing a mask in public places and staying at least 6 feet away from other people. 

In his email, Mr. Krabbenhoft argues the "on-again, off-again" use of masks is absurd. "Masks have been a symbolic issue that frankly frustrates me," he wrote. 

"On the other hand, for people who have not contracted the virus and may acquire it and then spread it … it is important for them to know that masks are just plain smart to use and in their best interest," Mr. Krabbenhoft wrote. 

The health system CEO concluded his letter by sharing his optimism for the future, noting that some Sanford Health workers would be among the first to get a COVID-19 vaccine once it is available. 

In a statement to Becker's, Micah Aberson, executive vice president at Sanford, said Mr. Krabbenhoft's opinions do not reflect the views of Sanford. 

"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," Mr. 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. 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."

On Nov. 20, Sanford's leadership team addressed Mr. Krabbenhoft's comments in an email sent to the system's 50,000 employees.

"We know that words matter, and words have power, and we regret that the message left many frustrated and disappointed," the leaders said regarding Mr. Krabbenhoft's message. "We want you to know unequivocally that our health system's position has not changed. We will continue to let science guide the work that we do every day to keep our communities healthy and safe. The science is clear, masks work. When it comes to immunity the science is evolving and we must continue to follow CDC guidelines. 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." 

The email was signed by Mr. Aberson and the following four executives: COO Matt Hocks; Allison Suttle, MD, chief medical officer; Bill Gassen, chief administrative officer; and Nathan Peterson, chief of staff. 

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