By Joyce Reingold
On Sept. 9, the Biden administration announced plans to require hospitals and health care facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding to vaccinate their employees against the coronavirus.
“As the Delta variant continues to spread, we know the best defense against it lies with the COVID-19 vaccine,” Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services administrator, said in a press release. “Data show that the higher the level of vaccination rates among providers and staff, the lower the infection rate is among patients who are dependent upon them for care. Now is the time to act.”
Several hospital systems in South Florida had already done just that. In August, Baptist Health South Florida, whose hospitals include Boca Raton Regional and Bethesda East and West, announced an Oct. 31 deadline for employees, medical staff and volunteers to be immunized.
By early September, Dr. Samer Fahmy, vice president and chief medical officer of Boca Raton Regional Hospital, said approximately 70% of Baptist Health South Florida employees had been vaccinated, “regardless of any policies that were put in place.”
“So that was encouraging, and we’ve seen more and more folks step up and get vaccinated over the last couple of weeks now that they know that it will be required to continue working within the Baptist Health system,” said Fahmy, who has helped lead the pandemic response for Boca Raton Regional and Baptist Health South Florida.
Also prior to President Joe Biden’s announcement, some hospital systems said they would recommend but not require vaccinations. Tenet’s Palm Beach Health Network, which includes the Delray and West Boca medical centers, said in a statement, “We are strongly encouraging COVID-19 vaccinations for all of our employees. We have implemented vaccine education, a vaccine referral program and are offering on-site vaccine clinics.”
In May, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employers may require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but must make reasonable accommodations for employees who don’t get vaccinated because of a disability or a “sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance.”
Baptist Health is allowing religious and medical exemptions and has committees to review employee requests. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a medical exemption would apply to people “at risk for an adverse reaction because of an allergy to one of the vaccine components or a medical condition.”
Still, vaccine mandates have already been the subject of legal challenges and more will surely follow. In June, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by Jennifer Bridges and 116 other Houston Methodist Hospital employees challenging the organization’s vaccine requirement.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes said, “Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients, and their families safer. Bridges can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else.”
In August, the Houston Chronicle reported that 62 former employees had sued the hospital, claiming wrongful termination. The suit was still pending in mid-September.
Fahmy acknowledges staff losses are a possibility, of course, but he’s cautiously optimistic.
“Is there the potential that the end of October rolls around and there are some unvaccinated employees that may be subject to termination from Baptist Health? Yes. That’s how serious we are about our vaccination efforts. You need to get vaccinated against COVID-19, not just for your own safety, but for the safety of the patients that you care for within our facilities. …
“Our hope is that it doesn’t have to come to that and that we can convince the folks that are eligible to receive vaccines to get them. But if it did come to that, there are plans in place for contingency staffing, if needed,” he said.
ER doctor calls mandates essential
Dr. Bill Benda, an emergency room physician and associate professor of emergency medicine at Florida Atlantic University, said in September he was surprised by the number of hospital workers who hadn’t been vaccinated — “I can’t give you anything exact. I’m going to guess a third or possibly less, including emergency department staff” — and believes the mandates are essential.
“Biden’s doing what has to be done. The military has to have it. Federal workers have to have it. These hospital systems are saying their employees have to have it,” says Benda, who lives in the County Pocket near Briny Breezes. “We tried conversation, we tried reasoning, and either people’s assumptions or their politics are getting in the way. And it’s not acceptable anymore. It’s not a big sacrifice.
“My father was a farmer’s son. And in the ’40s he enlisted in the Army to go to a country halfway across the world to protect people that he had no clue who they were. And fight an evil that wasn’t a direct threat to him. And not only did he do it, but rock stars like Elvis Presley did it. Movie stars — Jimmy Stewart — did it. Athletes — Joe DiMaggio — did it. And they did it because it was the right thing to do.
“People need to get off their collective asses and do the right thing … because the risk they are running is nowhere near what my dad faced. He did it because it was the right thing to do it. I don’t know how we lost that directive.”
Joyce Reingold writes about health and healthy living. Send column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.