Staffing Shortages, Vaccine Anxiety Top Priorities for New Akron Children’s CEO

AKRON, Ohio — Problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic are among the top concerns for Akron Children’s Hospital, said incoming CEO Christopher Gessner.

Gessner, who succeeded Grace Wakulchik Oct. 18, said like all hospitals, Akron Children’s is working to continue a high level of care while dealing with challenges associated with the pandemic.

“We are definitely experiencing the same type of staffing shortages that all hospitals are,” said Gessner during a conference call Wednesday with reporters. While not close to patient capacity, Gessner said the system is experiencing staffing shortages across the board.

“I would say we’re spending half our time thinking about new ways to deliver care, ways to invest in our staff so that we can more effectively recruit and retain,” he said.

Gessner said the shortages aren’t from workers leaving because of the hospital’s vaccine policy, which he describes as, “very reasonable.” Akron Children’s is not mandating that employees get the COVID vaccine, although the hospital strongly encourages it.

Akron Children’s incoming CEO Christopher Gessner talks with reporters via video conference.

Under review are options for systemwide testing, which the hospital plans to mandate for employees who choose not to be vaccinated. No date has been set for when the policy would go into effect. Once it does, unvaccinated employees would be required to get tested for COVID at least once a week.

“I think it’s important for everyone to realize we’re a place where children come here who are sick and many of them are immunocompromised,” Gessner told reporters. “We’re held to a higher standard as health care providers to try to get as many of our people vaccinated as possible.”

Managing vaccine anxiety among parents and staff is an ongoing effort, he continued. Akron Children’s currently vaccinates children 12 years and older at its pediatric offices and at both hospital campuses, and will offer the vaccine to children ages 5 to 11 once it receives approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Gessner estimated the system is vaccinating 2,000 children per month and has vaccinated around 50,000 to date. He said the vaccines are safe and can help prevent children, who typically don’t suffer the worst effects of the virus, from spreading it to others who are more at risk.

As far as plans for the hospital’s presence in the Mahoning Valley, Gessner said it was too soon to speculate on future expansions. He said he plans to visit the Mahoning Valley in the next two weeks.

Regardless, he plans to focus on the importance of integrating behavioral health and physical health throughout the system.

“I’m a big believer that that combination of mental health professionals, behavioral health professionals and clinicians in the medical world — working together as a team — produces the best outcome,” he said.

Gessner was reared in Ligonier, Pa., and received a master’s degree in health care administration from the University of Pittsburgh. Most recently he held the position of CEO at UCHealth University of Colorado.

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