Biden Plan Comes As Most Tampa Bay Hospitals Resisted Employee Vaccine Mandate
Prior to President Joe Biden's announcement that hospital workers must get a coronavirus vaccine, leaders of hospital systems in the region have been reluctant to make it a requirement.
While health care workers are overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, a majority of whom are unvaccinated, leaders of hospital systems in the greater Tampa Bay region have urged people to get the vaccine.
But so far, they have not required shots for their employees.
That could change with Thursday’s announcement by President Joe Biden that his administration will mandate employee vaccinations at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs.
After the announcement, BayCare Health Systems said it would mandate the vaccine for its 28,000 employees -- joining about 41% of hospitals nationwide.
Tampa General Hospital also issued a statement Friday that it "plans to comply with the Presidential Executive Order related to mandatory vaccines for all team members and physicians of TGH and its affiliates."
While the American Hospital Association reports more than 2,500 U.S hospitals now have some sort of vaccination mandate, the majority of Tampa Bay hospitals are not among them.
Tampa General Hospital told WUSF that 74% of its employees already are vaccinated. The Tampa Bay Times reports about half of AdventHealth’s West Florida Division are fully vaccinated.
As of Friday morning, TGH, AdventHealth and HCA said they strongly encourage vaccinations, but have stopped short of requiring them.
Jay Wolfson, a public health professor at the University of South Florida, said hospitals have been reluctant to mandate vaccinations out of fear some employees may quit when there are already staff shortages.
"Anytime you do something that upsets your employees, especially if there are unions involved, you run the risk of angering your employees, which creates a hostile work environment," Wolfson said.
Wolfson said the ethics of vaccine mandates is difficult.
"Personal freedom is something we cherish in this country, but it carries with it the responsibility to ourselves, to our families, to our communities and to others when we know that there is a monster that's invading us," Wolfson said.
Wolfson said there are no easy ethical answers.
"It's similar in some respects to people not knowing whether their health care provider has HIV or AIDS,” Wolfson said. “Or whether their health care provider may have cancer. At what point does my personal health status and my disease status and the medications I'm taking become an issue of my employer or the people I serve."
Even so, with three potential coronavirus strains coming up behind the delta variant, Wolfson says one thing is certain: A large reservoir of unvaccinated people creates an opportunity for the virus to mutate faster and stronger.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services had previously issued a vaccination requirement to nursing home staff. Biden's plan extends it to other health care facilities, including hospitals, home health agencies and dialysis centers.
Republican leaders and some unions said Biden was going too far in trying to muscle private companies and workers, a certain sign of legal challenges to come. Asked about potential legal challenges to the new vaccine requirements, Biden responded, “Have at it.”
Some Florida hospitals had started vaccine mandates for employees before Biden's announcement. Among them: Jacksonville's Mayo Clinic and Baptist Health, Miami's Jackson Health System, and NCH Healthcare in Collier County.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said in August that he does not support employee vaccine mandates but noted that frontline health workers were among the first people in the state with access to shots after emergency use authorization was granted in December.
Health News Florida's Rick Mayer and Carl Lisciandrello, and News Service of Florida contributed to this report.