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Midwest health system CEO replaced after controversial email about mask use

Sanford Health’s CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft said he thinks wearing a mask would be merely for show, believing he is immune for 'at least seven months.'

SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota — The head of one of the largest regional health systems in the Midwest was replaced Tuesday, less than a week after telling employees that he had recovered from COVID-19 and was not wearing a mask around the office.

Sanford Health said in a release that it has “mutually agreed to part ways” with longtime CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft, who took over in 1996 and helped expand the organization from a community hospital into what is billed as the largest rural nonprofit health system in the country.

Krabbenhoft left the executive position after telling employees in an email that he believes he’s now immune to COVID-19 for “at least seven months and perhaps years to come” and that he isn’t a threat to transmit it to anyone. He said wearing a mask would be merely for show. Other Sanford executives tried to distance themselves from the comments.

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Dr. Kathy Anderson, president of the North Dakota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said it was “an especially dangerous message to be sending right now in North Dakota.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people to wear masks because they help prevent people who are infected — whether they know it or not — from spreading the coronavirus. It also says masks can also protect wearers who are not infected, though to a lesser degree.

Krabbenhoft said in a statement that the timing of his departure was right for him and his family.

“We decided that today was a good time to retire,” he said. “Sanford is in a good place, strongest ever.”

The company's Board of Trustees have named Bill Gassen to take over for Krabbenhoft. Gassen has been with Sanford since 2012, most recently serving as chief administrative officer. His appointment is effective immediately.

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 for weeks had the country’s worst spread rates of the coronavirus, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

Krabbenhoft's departure comes a month after Sanford and Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare announced plans to merge companies. Krabbenhoft was slated to become president emeritus after the merger, which still needs to be approved.

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Dec. 2, 2015 file photo, Kelby Krabbenhoft, president and CEO of Sanford Health, poses for a photo at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D.