Vaccine Mandates for Healthcare Workers: Exacerbating the Healthcare Worker Shortage?

The United States healthcare sector has experienced nurse and worker shortages on and off since the 1960s, and the current COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened this phenomenon. As of April 2021, over 3,000 US healthcare workers have died due to COVID-19 since the pandemic started, and many more have left the field because of the lack of equipment, support, and increasing hours, all of which has led to extreme burn-out and fatigue. More recently, vaccine mandates imposed by the federal government, states, and private companies are now placing even more strain on healthcare workers as those unwilling to be vaccinated have been fired, have quit, or have been placed on administrative leave

Vaccines are an essential part of bringing America out of this pandemic, and are an important part of keeping healthcare workers safe. Healthcare providers are on the frontlines serving all people who need medical care, COVID and non-COVID patients. Although safety measures are taken, hospital staff and healthcare providers are at higher risk of COVID infection. Healthcare workers were among the first groups to be eligible for the vaccine because of their increased exposure to patients with COVID. Once vaccines were open to the public, many hospitals and governments began to implement vaccine mandates. 

Currently, thirteen states require healthcare workers, home aides, and nursing care workers to be vaccinated before treating patients. In the private sector, major healthcare providers across the country, including Kaiser Permanente, Atrium Health, and Trinity Health, have issued COVID vaccine mandates for their employees. The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, via the Biden-Harris Administration, mandated in early September that all Medicare and Medicaid certified facilities must vaccinate their employees to continue to receive payments and benefits from the program. Medical and religious exemptions are accepted by all of these institutions. The policy rationale behind vaccine mandates for healthcare workers is that it protects both patients and staff. Through vaccines, hospitals and clinics can slow the spread of COVID-19 and maintain a steady workforce by reducing the number of staff members who contract and transmit COVID. However, not all healthcare workers are willing to comply with these mandates.

In the last few months, healthcare facilities have fired a number of their workers for refusing to be vaccinated, and others have quit, claiming that the mandates violate their rights. On October 6, Kaiser Permanente placed over 2,000 Washington state employees on unpaid leave and have said they have until December 1, 2021, to comply or have their employment permanently terminated. The company reports they are optimistic about the situation and will continue to educate their employees on the benefit of the vaccines. At Henry Ford Health in Detroit, over 400 employees quit just this month protesting the vaccine mandate. Colorado’s health officials are contemplating extending vaccination deadlines and weakening the vaccination policy to retain providers that they would otherwise need to fire for failure to comply. These examples show the vast array of strategies employed by hospitals who are reluctant to fire their workers, but also want to keep their patients and workers safe from this destructive disease. 

Hospitals and providers are responsible for the lives and safety of their patients, and a large part of that duty is keeping healthcare workers safe and in safe working conditions. Although there is hesitancy and cases of outright refusal to comply with vaccine mandates, COVID vaccines have thus far proven to save lives and improve immune responses to exposure. Vaccinating healthcare workers helps to keep them safe and protected as they continue to provide care for patients. 

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