Marc L. Boom, MD, Houston Methodist Hospital’s CEO and president, took an unequivocal stand in mandating that employees get vaccinated and it’s a stand that not only other health care institutions—but all companies in every industry—might also possibly take thanks to guidance on the matter by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Houston, you have a problem.
The standoff between Houston Methodist Hospital and some of its workers who refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine ended in a major defeat for collective employee action on Tuesday as the hospital reported to various media outlets that 153 of those employees have either resigned or were fired.
Since Houston Methodist Hospital made employment contingent on getting the COVID-19 vaccine, other well-known health care systems have followed suit. As Infection Control Today® (ICT®) reported, those systems include Johns Hopkins Hospital, Penn Medicine: University of Pennsylvania Health System, and New York-Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center in New York. There are certainly more to follow.
Marc L. Boom, MD, Houston Methodist Hospital’s CEO and president, took an unequivocal stand in mandating that employees get vaccinated and it’s a stand that not only other health care institutions—but all companies in every industry—might also possibly take thanks to guidance on the matter that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated on May 28. The EEOC says that employers can mandate that all employees re-entering the workplace and new hires be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Houston Methodist Hospital suspended 178 employees a few weeks ago for refusing to get vaccinated. A group of 117 of those employees sued the hospital, arguing that they should not be forced to take any of the 3 COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States because they were granted under the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization (EUA), which essentially makes the vaccines an experimental “and dangerous” treatment, as CNN reports. U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes dismissed the lawsuit, but that decision has been appealed.
The issue has come to a head sooner than most experts who spoke to ICT® since the beginning of the pandemic expected. Some cited the EUA status as possibly preventing mandated vaccines while others noted that while many health care systems mandate that employees get vaccinated against influenza each year, that occurred only after a decades’ long campaign.
Jason Tetro, the host of the popular podcast show the Super Awesome Science Show and the author of The Germ Code and The Germ Files told ICT® in September 2020 that “there really is a resistance to vaccination, and health care workers are not excluded from those individuals.”
Tetro and other experts said that infection preventionists (IPs) were preparing to use the power of persuasion to convince their hesitant health care colleagues to get vaccinated. IPs may still be on the forefront of COVID-19 vaccination efforts, but those efforts might become easier because employees might be frightened about losing their jobs.
Some medical experts believe that Houston Methodist Hospital is making the right call. Paul Sax, MD, the clinical director of the infectious disease clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, recently told ICT® that “if you [health care professionals] don’t want to do this, and you don’t have a medical reason not to do it—because there are people who have a medical reason not to do it—then I suggest really that you find another job.”
Sax also finds the argument that employees can refuse to be vaccinated because the vaccines were granted under an EUA specious. “I think that the fact that they’re not fully FDA approved right now is really more about paperwork and semantics than it is about what we can actually do,” said Sax.
Kevin Kavanagh, MD, a member of ICT®’s Editorial Advisory Board, also believes that vaccine mandates should apply to health care workers, and a headline for an opinion piece Kavanagh wrote for ICT® on April 22 lays it all out there: “Viewpoint: Health Care Professionals—Get Vaccinated or Get Out.” In it, Kavanagh wrote that “if you work in a health care facility, you need to be vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2. If you choose not to become vaccinated, then you should choose not to be working in a health care setting.”
Houston Methodist Hospital finds itself today with 153 fewer health care workers and how that plays out in terms of the level of care the hospital can give patients remains to be seen. When the effect mandates might have on staff sizes was pointed out to Sax, he said that “it cuts both ways. On the one hand, you’re right. You’d hate to eliminate from the pool of potential employees, people solely based on their view of vaccines. But another way of looking at it is that you’re much more likely to keep them healthy and in the workforce.”
And in a few months’ time we might need every health care worker we can get, Sax added.
“It’s almost inevitable that even though we’re at very low infection rates right now that that’s going to increase when the season changes, again, in the fall and winter. Coronaviruses are seasonal. I don’t think anyone—even the most optimistic person—feels like it’s kind of going to be gone.”