Sanford Health Parts Ways with CEO Krabbenhoft Over His Refusal to Wear a Mask During a COVID-19 Surge

Nov. 25, 2020
On Nov. 24, the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford Health System announced that CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft and Sanford’s Board of Trustees had “mutually agreed to part ways,” following a mask-wearing controversy

The CEO of the 46-hospital, Sioux Falls, South Dakota Sanford Health system on Nov. 24 abruptly resigned his position and left the organization, over a controversy around his refusal to wear a protective mask, during a time in which the COVID-19 pandemic is surging across South Dakota and nationwide.

As CNN’s Samira Said and Scottie Andrew reported on Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 25, “The CEO of a national health system abruptly left the company after telling employees he wouldn't wear a mask because he'd already had Covid-19. In an email to over 50,000 staff last week, Sanford Health CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft said he didn't need to wear a mask because he'd recovered from the illness and that using one was a ‘symbolic gesture.’” And, according to an email that CNN obtained last week, Krabbenhoft had told hospital system staff that, "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.” Experts agree that it is possible, though uncommon, for an individual to be infected with COVID-19 a second time.

In a statement posted to Sanford Health’s corporate website on Nov. 24, the health system’s board of directors stated the following: “The Board of Trustees has announced that Sanford Health and longtime CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft have mutually agreed to part ways. The Board of Trustees recognized Krabbenhoft’s contributions to the organization over his long tenure. Krabbenhoft assumed the role of president and CEO in 1996 and built the organization from a community hospital into the largest rural non-profit health system in the country, now spanning 26 states and 10 countries.” “Kelby’s impact on the organization and the communities it serves will be felt for generations to come,” said Brent Teiken, board chair in the statement.

The statement went on to note that “The Board of Trustees has appointed Bill Gassen president and CEO of Sanford Health. Gassen has been with the organization since 2012, most recently serving as chief administrative officer. His appointment is effective immediately.” And it quoted board chair Teiken as saying that “Bill is the right person to lead Sanford Health through these unprecedented times because of his substantial experience with many aspects of the organization and his deep commitment to our workforce,” said Teiken. “We’re extremely optimistic about having his steady hand at the wheel in partnership with our existing leadership team.”

“I’m honored to have the opportunity to work on behalf of the Sanford family and help lead this organization and its life-changing work. Our system’s priorities will be focused on taking care of our people, our patients and the communities we serve,” Gassen said, in a statement included in the overall statement on the organization’s website.

CNN’s Said and Andrew wrote that, “In a statement obtained by CNN affiliate KSFY, Krabbenhoft said he decided Tuesday ‘was a good time to retire’ and said the company he was leaving was ‘in a good place, stronger than ever.’”

The COVID-19 pandemic is surging now across South Dakota. Marissa Lute of KELO-TV, the CBS affiliate station in Sioux Falls, wrote on Nov. 25 that “Twenty-eight new COVID-19 deaths were reported in Wednesday’s update from the South Dakota Department of Health. The death toll is now at 849. There have been 434 deaths reported since Nov. 1.” She also noted that “Current hospitalizations are now at 570, down from Tuesday (574). Total hospitalizations are now at 4,243, up from Tuesday (4,193).”

And CNN’s Said and Andrew wrote in their story that “Krabbenhoft's email outraged some staff at the nonprofit company, which is headquartered in South Dakota, as the state has been overwhelmed by Covid-19 since the early fall. South Dakota is one of the current epicenters of coronavirus in the US, with daily new cases regularly topping 1,000 throughout November, according to the state's Covid-19 dashboard. As of Wednesday, the state has recorded close to 75,000 Covid-19 cases and has the second-highest number of cases per 100,000 residents, just behind North Dakota. Krabbenhoft's email echoed South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem's sentiment on masks,” they added. “Even as Covid-19 ravaged her state, she refused to mandate masks, questioning their effectiveness despite mounting evidence in their favor and saying it's up to families to decide whether to wear them.”

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