As we witness another spike in COVID cases around the country, the vaccine rate has been stagnant. According to the CDC, only about 50% of the national population has been vaccinated. In Arizona, the number is closer to 45% for residents who are fully vaccinated. In some parts of the country, hospitals and health centers are overwhelmed by unvaccinated patients who have contracted the Delta Variant. Studies indicate this variant is more transmissible than others, but even with this new threat, the majority of the remaining unvaccinated residents are unlikely to seek out vaccination.
Vaccination rates among healthcare workers vary, with 96% of physicians but only 55% of nursing home staff, fewer than 50% of nurses, and just 26% of home health aides fully vaccinated. These stats are very concerning to healthcare leaders. The experts say that unvaccinated healthcare employees put patients at risk every day because their jobs require close interaction with both unvaccinated patients and immunocompromised patients. These patients are more apt to contract the variant and experience complications from it. Let’s also not lose track of the fact that nationally more than 500,000 healthcare employees have been infected with COVID in the last 18 months and 1,679 died.
Medical Leaders Weigh In
In late July, more than 50 medical societies and organizations representing millions of healthcare employees, including doctors, nurses, physician assistants, public health employees, home healthcare professionals, and hospice workers, signed a letter calling for vaccine mandates for all employees in the healthcare industry. These organizations include the American Medical Association, National League for Nursing, and American College of Physicians. In Arizona, some healthcare organizations have already issued a mandate for their employees. These organizations include Banner Health, Mayo Clinic, and HonorHealth.
Mandating vaccines can be difficult. It is completely legal for any business, including medical-related businesses, to require employees to be vaccinated. But to complicate matters, Arizona state legislators have passed two laws stating employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees with religious beliefs, practices, or observances that prevent them from getting the vaccine and banning the use of “vaccine passports.” However, neither of these laws apply to healthcare institutions. It’s likely, though, that these exemptions may cause confusion and misinformation among employees and patients.
Instead of mandates, some employers are offering incentives for vaccination, such as paid time off to get vaccinated or cash bonuses. Some employers are making it easier for employees to get vaccinated by hosting vaccine clinics in the workplace. There are pitfalls to this idea because employers must maintain the confidentiality of employee health documentation, including a COVID-19 vaccination. In May, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance that approved the use of incentives for vaccines AND a vaccine mandate by employers in most cases. This clears the way for more vaccine incentives and mandates to be issued.
The Great Divide
Our nation is divided in our opinion of employer requirements for COVID-19 vaccination. About half of us (51%) say employers should require employees to get vaccinated unless they have a medical exemption, and almost all of the other half (46%) say they should not. Somewhat fewer support employers offering financial incentives, with four in ten (39%) saying employers should offer cash bonuses and other incentives to employees who get vaccinated and a majority (57%) saying employers should not do this.
What the Future Holds
Despite all the complexities, it looks like the trend of mandating vaccines for healthcare employees will continue. States like California are planning state-wide mandates for all healthcare employees. The Veterans Administration has also put a mandate in place, becoming the first federal organization to do so.
Georges C Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association, sums up the position of most healthcare leaders by saying, “Universal vaccination of healthcare workers is the single most important step healthcare institutions can do to stop the spread of COVID-19. It is essential for protecting the health of their workers, the safety of their patients and ultimately the health of their communities.”.
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