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CEO of one of the Midwest's largest health systems to leave company after controversial COVID-19 email

Coronavirus pandemic grips South Dakota
Coronavirus pandemic grips South Dakota 01:32

The CEO of one of the largest health systems in the Dakotas is leaving his role days after he sent a controversial email to employees about his recovery from the coronavirus and his self-claimed immunity from the disease. The board of trustees of Sanford Health announced Tuesday that it "mutually agreed to part ways" with longtime president and chief executive Kelby Krabbenhoft. 

The 62-year-old told employees in an email Wednesday that he will not be wearing a mask to the office because he recovered from the coronavirus and is therefore immune, according to The Associated Press. Krabbenhoft, who is not a physician, reportedly told employees that he's immune to the virus for "at least seven months and perhaps years to come" — a statement that is not supported by the science.

"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," Krabbenhoft wrote in the email, according to the AP. "I have no interest in using masks as a symbolic gesture. ... My team and I have a duty to express the truth and facts and reality and not feed the opposite."

Krabbenhoft did say it was important for those who hadn't contracted COVID-19 to wear masks, writing, "It is important for them to know that masks are just plain smart to use and in their best interest."

Krabbenhoft also recently made headlines for contradicting his own medical director about the severity of the pandemic. He told CBS News correspondent David Begnaud that "It's hard for me to say we are at a crisis" — but when the medical director, Dr. Allison Suttle, was asked if she'd call the situation a crisis, she responded, "I would."

Sanford Gift
CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft seen in this January 7, 2014, file photo. Dirk Lammers / AP

Krabbenhoft's comments come as the North and South Dakota are grappling with a severe uptick in coronavirus cases. As of Monday, South Dakota had more COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths per capita than any other state. In North Dakota, hospitals became so overwhelmed this month that the governor issued an order allowing health care workers who tested positive for the coronavirus, but are not showing symptoms, to keep working. 

Krabbenhoft had previously said he would retire in 18 months, following the announcement of a merger with Intermountain Healthcare of Utah, according to CBS affiliate KELO-TV. In an interview Tuesday with the station, Krabbenhoft said he's leaving the company early because of how successful it has become.

"If there was ever a time for a guy, who's been through what I've been through, this is a great time to say goodbye," he said. 

Sanford Health — which is based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota — has 46 hospitals and over 200 clinics in the Midwest, according to its website. When the merger is complete, the company will have 70 hospitals and employ nearly 90,000 people, KELO-TV reported.

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