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Can front-line workers skeptical of COVID-19 vaccine be forced to get it?

Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey in mid-December found about about one in four Americans are unlikely to take the vaccine. What's more, the survey found nearly one in three of America's health care workers won't get vaccinated.

Some California hospitals are reporting that as many as half of their employees aren't getting vaccinated. Reports are emerging of vaccines spoiling and getting tossed in part because so many people first in line to receive the shots are refusing them.

Kaiser Permanente has vaccinated more than 47,000 of its Northern California employees; it wouldn't say how many have refused.

"I was mostly surprised to see how many of my colleagues are pretty vocal about their skepticism," said Heather Olmsted Hamlin, an emergency department nurse at Kaiser's South Sacramento hospital who insisted that she wasn't speaking on behalf of her employer.

"I understand people want to feel like they have control (of what goes in their bodies). But just because of the things we've been seeing and the restrictions that we have in our lives and around the country around the world, and how badly people want to get back to normal, it's really, really shocking and disappointing to see," she said.

Federal law gives employers a right to mandate a vaccine as a condition of employment, if they choose.


But experts say medical centers and other front-line employers are reluctant to impose a vaccine requirement because it's not been tested in court whether they can do the same with these new COVID-19 vaccines.

That's because the newly released vaccines are being distributed under what's known as an "emergency use authorization."

"That means they were allowed to come out based on very positive safety and efficacy data early, but it may be difficult to have the government or employers impose a mandate because you don't have a licensed product yet," said Caplan, the medical ethics expert.

Other experts such as Ikemoto, the UC Davis professor, said that for now, much of the reluctance to mandatory vaccination in hospitals comes down to staffing. Hospitals, overwhelmed by the influx of patients and staff members coming down sick, already are struggling to keep enough workers on the clock to care for patients.


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