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Incentives boosted hospital staff vaccination rates in South Florida. Mandates did more

Daniel Chang, Miami Herald on

Published in Health & Fitness

“We continue to work with those who do not have approved exemptions and are not vaccinated to bring them into compliance,” Bixby said.

Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston, which has more than 3,600 employees, announced a vaccine mandate for staff on Nov. 12 — a policy that hews to the new federal rules, including the Jan. 4 deadline, and applies to all Cleveland Clinic employees in the United States.

Emily Winston, a spokeswoman for Cleveland Clinic Florida, said that 83% of its Weston employees are vaccinated.

Legal challenges

Though uptake of the shots varies by region and job type, national vaccination rates appear to be high among health care workers. The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest physician’s advocacy group, reports that 96% of doctors were fully vaccinated as of June while a survey with the American Nursing Association found that 88% of nurses were inoculated as of August.

Federal regulators estimate that the Jan. 4 requirements will apply to about 76,000 medical providers and more than 17 million health care workers in the United States. The rule does not cover physician offices.

The regulation issued by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services or CMS provides exceptions only for recognized medical conditions and religious beliefs, as required by federal law, and requires facilities to do the same.

But the future of the federal government’s vaccine mandate for health care workers may be decided by the courts.

Two groups representing a total of 22 states as of Nov. 16 have filed lawsuits to block the vaccine mandate for health care workers, calling the requirement unconstitutional and against the law.

Florida is not a party to those lawsuits, whose plaintiffs argue that the mandate exceeds CMS’ authority and violates a federal ban on regulations that control the hiring and firing of health care workers.

At least 27 states, including Florida, have filed lawsuits over the vaccine mandate for businesses issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, on Nov. 5. The mandate was put on hold a week later by order of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Waiting and seeing

 

Vargas, the Memorial Healthcare chief human resources officer, said most of the employees who have not been vaccinated share a common perspective.

“A lot of what I hear is, ‘Let me wait and see. Let me see what happens as we continue to vaccinate the community. Let me wait and see what my medical provider says’,” Vargas said. “It’s hard to explain the holdouts, but the employees definitely — from what I’m hearing when I do rounds in the facilities — they feel supported enough that they can make an informed decision.”

Vargas and other hospital administrators stressed that many health care workers accepted the vaccines and felt confident in their safety and effectiveness as soon as the shots became available in December 2020. Others were motivated by their experiences caring for patients with COVID-19 and the surge of hospitalizations and deaths that occurred in Florida during the summer.

With Florida’s summer surge receding, the new federal rules may provide additional incentive for those health care workers who have refused to take the vaccine so far. Once the mandate goes into effect, those workers will not have the option to transfer to a different state or medical provider that does not require a vaccine.

For South Florida hospital administrators, perhaps the biggest suspense about the mandate is whether the Biden and DeSantis administrations will agree about the need to vaccinate all health care workers.

“Right now, the federal and state government are going in two directions,” said Migoya, the Jackson Health CEO. “By end of this week, we’ll find out where the state of Florida is going.”

Like those employees who have not yet taken the vaccine, some hospital administrators are listening to experts and weighing a decision.

“We are relying on counsel and watching to see what happens,” said Vargas of Memorial Healthcare. “We’re not sure what the right thing is. But what we do know is that there’s a federal ruling and we’re going to have to figure out what that means.”

Fernandez, the chief executive of Baptist Health’s physician group, said the hospital system’s decision to adopt a mandate was relatively straightforward.

“Following the guidelines, and following the science and the information that comes out, that really has been our North Star,” he said. “That’s why we made the determination that this is the safest strategy to take.”

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