Sanford Health President and CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft, who is not a doctor, sent an email to employees on Wednesday in which said he wouldn’t wear a mask because he considered it a “symbolic gesture” since he had caught COVID-19 and now considered himself immune.

But the health system issued a statement on Friday flatly distancing itself from Krabbenhoft’s claims.

“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,” wrote system Executive Vice President Micah Aberson.

Sanford executives also sent an email to all employees on Friday distancing themselves from Krabbenhoft’s statements and apologizing for their effects.

“We know that words matter, and words have power, and we regret that the message left many frustrated and disappointed,” wrote the five executives, in the email obtained from multiple sources by Forum News Service. “You are our heroes working tirelessly to take care of our patients and we hear you, support you and appreciate you.”

Executives who signed the email were COO Matt Hocks, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allison Suttle, Chief Administrative Officer Bill Gassen, Chief of Staff Nathan Peterson and Aberson. Krabbenhoft did not sign the email.

Sioux Falls-based Sanford Health is one of the nation’s largest non-profit health systems, with major medical facilities and hundreds of clinics in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.

Sanford Health announced plans late last month to merge with Intermountain Healthcare. Representatives of the Utah-based health system did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Krabbenhoft’s statements.

In the all-employees email, the Sanford Health executives told employees Krabbenhoft wrote his Wednesday because he had a “strong desire” to share his own COVID-19 experience and opinions, but that the health system’s masking policy remained unchanged.

“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,” they wrote.

Krabbenhoft had written he considered himself immune to COVID-19 for at least seven months and maybe longer, although there is little scientific evidence or research to back up his opinion. The Sanford executives’ advice to employees addressed their CEO’s claims, and the evidence gathered thus far by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When it comes to immunity the science is evolving and we must continue to follow CDC guidelines,” they wrote. “Whether you’ve had the virus or not, it is recommended that you wear a mask when you cannot be socially distanced.”

The executives called the COVID-19 situation across the Upper Midwest a serious one, particularly since data projections showed the potential for 200 new hospitalizations from the virus in the weeks following Thanksgiving if people gathered in large groups. But they also said they were “incredibly optimistic” with new treatment therapies, “innovative ways” to deliver home care and new vaccines on the horizon.

We are grateful to our Sanford Family who show up every day out of a deep sense of calling to care for all patients who come through the door,” the wrote. “We know that we are not living and working in normal times, that many of you are taking on additional responsibilities, working longer hours and agreeing to more shifts. We can hear the fatigue in your voices, and we can see it on your faces. We hear you, and we are behind you.”

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Full email from the Sanford Health executives below, subject line: “We stand united with you,” Friday, Nov. 20:

Dear Sanford Family,

On Wednesday evening, Kelby Krabbenhoft, president and chief executive officer, sent an email to you, our 50,000 employees, because he had a strong desire to share his personal experience with COVID-19 and his opinions about this virus. We know that words matter, and words have power, and we regret that the message left many frustrated and disappointed. You are our heroes working tirelessly to take care of our patients and we hear you, support you and appreciate you.

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.

We stand united in this call-to-action to our communities: In order for masks to be effective in reducing the spread of this virus, we need everyone to wear one.

The situation across the upper Midwest is serious right now. We know that hospitalizations lag two to three weeks behind positivity rates. Our data projections show that we could see more than 200 additional hospitalizations in the weeks following Thanksgiving if people gather with friends or members of other households in large groups.

We can’t say it enough: We need everyone in the community do their part so we can take care of those who need us.

We are grateful to our Sanford Family who show up every day out of a deep sense of calling to care for all patients who come through the door. We know that we are not living and working in normal times, that many of you are taking on additional responsibilities, working longer hours and agreeing to more shifts. We can hear the fatigue in your voices, and we can see it on your faces. We hear you, and we are behind you.

As we look ahead to the coming months, we are incredibly optimistic. We are at a pivotal moment – from new treatment therapies, to a promising new vaccine, and innovative ways to deliver care at home. There’s reason for hope and light on the horizon. Let’s continue to take care of each other so we cross the finish line together. We are indebted to you and have such great pride in your dedication to taking care of our patients and communities.

With respect and gratitude,

Matt Hocks

Chief Operating Officer

Allison Suttle, MD

Chief Medical Officer

Bill Gassen
Chief Administrative Officer

Micah Aberson
Executive Vice President

Nathan Peterson
Chief of Staff