On April 1, Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, announced a new policy that all of its staff would need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by June 7 in order to hold onto their jobs. Most responded positively but an estimated 150 staff members who did not comply either resigned or were terminated. A lawsuit by employees opposed to the vaccine mandate was dismissed by Federal District Court Judge Lynn Hughes in June, although a subsequent lawsuit was filed Aug. 16.
Vaccines have been shown to dramatically reduce both the incidence and the severity of COVID infections. Vaccinations of health care workers, especially those who have direct contact with patients, are demonstrated to be effective strategies to significantly reduce, although not eliminate, the possibility of viral transmissions to patients – or to health care workers themselves – thus saving lives.
Hospitalists, in their central role in the care of hospitalized patients, and often with primary responsibility for managing their hospital’s COVID-19 caseloads, may find themselves encountering conversations about the vaccine, its safety, effectiveness, and mandates with their peers, other hospital staff, patients, and families, and their communities. They can play key roles in advocating for the vaccine, answering questions, clarifying the science, and dispelling misinformation – for those who are willing to listen.
Becker’s Hospital Review, which has kept an ongoing tally of announced vaccine mandate policies in hospitals, health systems, and health departments nationwide, reported on Aug. 13 that 1,850 or 30% of U.S. hospitals, had announced vaccine mandates.1 Often exceptions can be made, such as for medical or religious reasons, or with other declarations or opt-out provisions. But in many settings, mandating COVID vaccinations won’t be easy.
Amith Skandhan, MD, SFHM, FACP, a hospitalist at Southeast Health Medical Center in Dothan, Ala., and a core faculty member in the internal medicine residency program at Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine, said that implementing vaccine mandates will be more difficult in smaller health systems, in rural communities, and in states with lower vaccination rates and greater vaccine controversy.
Alabama has the lowest vaccination rates in the country, reflected in the recent rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations, even higher than during the surge of late 2020, Dr. Skandhan said. “In June we had one COVID patient in this hospital.” By late August the number was 119 COVID patients and climbing.
But where he works, in a health system where staffing is already spread thin, a vaccine mandate would be challenging. “What if our staff started leaving? It’s only 10 minutes from here to the Florida or Georgia border,” Dr. Skandhan said. Health care workers opposed to vaccinations would have the option of easily seeking work elsewhere.
When contacted for this article, he had been off work for several days but was mentally preparing himself to go back. “I’m not even following the [COVID-19] numbers but I am prepared for the worst. I know it will be mostly COVID. People just don’t realize what goes into this work.”
Dr. Skandhan, who said he was the third or fourth person in Alabama to receive the COVID vaccine, often finds himself feeling frustrated and angry – in the midst of a surge in cases that could have been prevented – that such a beneficial medical advance for bringing the pandemic under control became so politicized. “It is imperative that we find out why this mistrust exists and work to address it. It has to be done.”