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Tina Casey headshot

How the U.S. Healthcare Industry Can Move the Needle on Vaccine Mandates

By Tina Casey
Vaccine Mandates

In this day and age of worker shortages, it seems that many employers have gone the extra mile to tolerate employees and prospective hires who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Fortunately, an equal and opposite movement is beginning to materialize around protecting workers, customers and clients. The healthcare industry could become a leading driver of the movement to establish vaccine mandates, and some institutions are already heeding the call.

Vaccine mandates take hold

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution took note of the rising tide of vaccine mandates last week, conjecturing that “no vax, no service” could soon join the familiar “no shirt, no shoes, no service” poster common at many eateries and other small businesses, due to the risk of infection by ferocious new variants of the COVID-19 virus.

The problem is that millions of American workers and employers did their due diligence and got vaccinated, but still must deal with other workers, customers and clients carrying the virus. The vaccine still protects against serious illness and death, but a positive test can spark expensive, disruptive waves of quarantine and testing throughout a company. It can become especially burdensome on small businesses, which may need to shut down completely while taking steps to contain an outbreak among employees.

The healthcare industry’s support is needed on vaccine mandates

So far, any strong movement in support of vaccine mandates has yet to gather steam. Despite the rising tide of death and long term illness, the anti-vaccination movement is still being stoked to a boil by Tucker Carlson of Fox News, among others in the media. Small business owners who impose a vaccine mandate are exposed to backlash from their community, unless larger companies step up to promote universal vaccination and help create a culture of community protection.

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Krispy Kreme provides a good example of the creative ways in which companies can offer a vaccine carrot, but their efforts seem to have mainly rewarded those already inclined to get vaccinated. They have barely put a dent in the anti-vaccination movement.

Now it appears that the time for a stick has come. AJC reporter Ligaya Figueras profiled one Atlanta restaurant and bar co-owner who explained that his decision to impose a vaccine mandate on both employees and customers was a quality of life and safety issue. He also pleaded for support from the healthcare industry.

That support may finally be forthcoming. In a twist of irony, a significant number of healthcare workers are still unvaccinated, putting medical institutions and companies at risk along with clients, students, patients, visitors, and volunteers. The industry is finally beginning to put its foot down.

Earlier this week, dozens of leading healthcare organizations and professional associations signed a statement making the ethical case for universal vaccination among healthcare workers.

Due to the recent COVID-19 surge and the availability of safe and effective vaccines, our healthcare organizations and societies advocate that all healthcare and long-term care employers require their workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” they wrote. “This is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all healthcare workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being.”

The statement also emphasized the need for leadership by the healthcare industry, arguing that “we hope all other employers across the country will follow our lead and implement effective policies to encourage vaccination. The health and safety of U.S. workers, families, communities, and the nation depends on it.”

Political leaders now stepping in

The vaccine mandate movement is already gathering steam, at least among institutional-type healthcare organizations. Last week, Becker’s Hospital Review published a long list of hospitals, medical facilities and healthcare systems issuing COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees, students, vendors and volunteers.

The missing piece is political. That is a prickly subject, considering the linkage between the anti-vaccination movement, the Republican Party and the failed insurrection of January 6.

That area is also quickly approaching a tipping point. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was among those included in the Becker’s list, having issued a vaccine mandate for all staff and medical employees at its facilities earlier this week.

The VA’s decision follows the Department of the Army’s plans for introducing mandatory vaccination in this fall, in consideration of widespread vaccine refusal among soldiers. That could set the stage for widespread mandates across the entire Department of Defense and other critical federal agencies, as well as state and level law enforcement agencies where vaccine rates also lag.

On the state level, California Governor Gavin Newsom has taken the lead and has bet his political future on mandatory vaccination.

Though facing the threat of a recall election, Newsom issued a detailed statement on July 26 imposing a wide-ranging vaccine mandate that covers all state employees as well as all healthcare workers in the state, plus workers in nursing homes and other high-risk residences.

Employers need to step up for vaccinated workers

In an interesting strategic decision, Newsom’s vaccine mandate provides unvaccinated workers with the alternative of submitting to weekly COVID-19 tests.

That underscores a point of contention for vaccinated workers. After all, those who are vaccinated expect to realize the rewards of vaccine, both in terms of disease prevention and in the ability to go about one’s work without the inconvenience of wearing a mask and other restrictions.

Now the vaccinated are exposed to new risks and a new imposition of mask mandates and other restrictions, largely on account of obstinate vaccine refusal by others. It is only fair to require the unvaccinated to take steps that help promote worker and customer safety by submitting to regular tests.

The whole situation should put employers on alert, not only in the healthcare industry but across the entire U.S. workforce.

Many employers have hesitated to impose vaccine mandates, most likely for fear of alienating vaccine-refusing employees, recruits, customers or the community at large. Now they have to deal with the consequences of a worker-friendly job market, in which vaccinated workers and job seekers are motivated to pick and choose among employment options that offer the safety, convenience and just plain fairness of a vaccine mandate.

Healthcare industry observers have already sensed that a tipping point is coming. Employers who act now can get ahead of the curve and help accelerate the vaccine mandate movement.

Image credit: Alex Mecl/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey