As we’ve talked to health system executives about the challenges of rolling out COVID vaccines in their communities, one topic keeps coming up: how difficult it’s been to get hospitals’ own workers fully vaccinated. One system told us recently that only 55 percent of their frontline caregivers have opted to get vaccinated, despite early and easy availability, and ongoing encouragement from the hospital’s leaders.
Healthcare workers, it turns out, are just like the general population, bringing the same diversity of perspectives and concerns about vaccination to work with them from their own communities. Vaccine hesitancy is not a new issue for hospital staffers; getting the workforce to take the flu vaccine is an annual struggle for many hospitals.
But given the risks of COVID-19, why not just mandate that hospital employees get the vaccine, as other employers have started to do? We commonly hear two concerns.
One is a labor relations worry: will mandating vaccination cause workers to quit, or make it harder to hire staff in an already difficult market for talent? And given growing concerns about unionization of healthcare workers, will mandatory vaccination become a flashpoint issue?
The second concern is medical liability: can we force workers to get a vaccine that hasn’t been fully approved by the FDA? Would that expose the hospital to legal challenges down the road, if there turn out to be long-term complications from the vaccine?
Our own view is that the first concern is overblown—we suspect vaccine mandates are going to become more and more common as the economy reopens. As to the second, we’re more sympathetic. But once the FDA does grant full approval for the vaccines, we’d hope hospitals will get tougher about vaccine mandates (with the necessary exemptions for health, religious, and other concerns).
At the end of the day, hospitals are in the patient care business, and they should view vaccine mandates—whether for COVID or for influenza—as a patient safety issue, not a workforce engagement issue.
Houston Methodist will make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for employees, with the first phase including managers and new hires, the health system said March 31.
In an email, Marc Boom, MD, president and CEO, told managers new hires are already required to be vaccinated as a condition to joining Houston Methodist, and management is now also required to do the same.
“When we choose to be vaccinated against COVID-19, we are prioritizing safety by helping stop the spread of this deadly virus and keeping our patients, visitors and colleagues safe,” Dr. Boom wrote to managers. “As we move closer to announcing mandatory vaccinations for all employees, we need you to go first — to lead by example and show our employees how important getting vaccinated is.”
At Houston Methodist, 95 percent of management and all executives have already received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Boom said managers who have not done this have until April 15 to receive at least one dose or get an approved exemption. Those who do not comply would first have a discussion with their supervisor, then could face suspension then termination.
All 26,000 Houston Methodist employees and employed physicians soon will be required to receive at least one shot.
Overall, about 83 percent of the health system’s employees have been vaccinated.